Photojournalist Shimon Gifter Speaks Out on Avenue M Handcuffing Incident
A seemingly innocent act of news reporting unexpectedly turned into an unsettling encounter with an aggressive NYPD officer last Wednesday on Avenue M in Midwood, when well-known photojournalist Shimon Gifter found himself in handcuffs while filming in the vicinity of a police action.
As Gifter explained in an exclusive interview with the Jewish Voice, he had learned that a disturbance involving at least one police officer was taking place on Avenue M and East 16th Street, so he went there to check out what sounded like a news story worthy of coverage. “When I got there, I saw a large crowd, and some people told me that a policeman was trying to control a big fight,” he related. “At first, I only saw one young man being held in a police van, with some cops standing around and talking. But then I saw another young man of distinctly ethnic minority suddenly stopped by some police officers and put up against a wall. I started filming the incident, but when one of the policemen told me to stop recording it because the alleged perpetrators were ‘juveniles,’ I immediately complied.”
According to Gifter, he shifted gears and started to video the general scenery in front of a nearby store, but another officer suddenly came up to him and accosted him. “After the cop said ‘Give me that – you’re under arrest,’ he grabbed my video camera, slapped police handcuffs on me, pushed me up against a wall, and even took away my phone,” the 38-year-old photojournalist recounted. “I told him that what he was doing was totally illegal – which it is, because a member of the media has the right to film in public – but he didn’t care, and he even purposely deleted all the video files from the camera.”
Gifter explained to the Jewish Voice that the only reason he was not actually placed under arrest was because an onlooker quickly contacted Dominic Scotto, the head of Community Affairs for the local 70th Police Precinct, who ordered the arresting officer to terminate his action and let his prey free. “I never did anything against the law,” Gifter insisted, “even though the officer was trying to incite me to respond to him insultingly so that he could have a truly legitimate reason for arresting me. I went down afterwards to the 70th Precinct to explain the circumstances and file a report – which Officer Scotto had advised me to do – but the commanding officer refused to speak with me.”
The intrepid photojournalist – who has an established reputation for documenting news and events of concern to the local Jewish community – said he subsequently realized that the police officers on the scene were most likely conducting a controversial “stop-and-frisk” procedure, and they were thus apprehensive that his recording of their actions could lead to their coming under legal scrutiny.
Gifter told the Jewish Voice he is especially outraged that he has received no support whatsoever from the leadership of the Orthodox Jewish community, citing Assemblyman Dov Hikind as one prime example. “Whenever someone from our community appears to have been mistreated by the police, Hikind takes on the case and makes a lot of noise about it,” he noted. “Yet, for some reason, he has not responded to my pleas for intervention.” Gifter also claims that members of the Shomrim patrol group are in possession of a photo of him being handcuffed and held by the police officer, yet are refusing to give him the photo.
“It’s fascinating,” he commented. “I’m getting virtually no assistance from my own community, but the many members of major New York media outlets who know me are backing me up in this case. The fact is that there have been a number of incidents in the past few years where the NYPD harassed reporters and photographers who were just doing their job and covering events out on the street.”
While Gifter spoke with the 70th Precinct’s internal affairs division and was promised that they would investigate the episode, he remains highly doubtful. “I think they’re lying. I don’t think they’re investigating at all,” he said. “They didn’t ask for any of the names of the witnesses – I have at least four – or for any other information.”
The Orthodox photojournalist – who happens to be a grandson of the renowned Torah sage Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland – has retained an attorney, Mickey Ostreicher, who serves as general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. The two were scheduled to announce the filing of a lawsuit against the would-be arresting officer on Tuesday. Expressing his determination to press charges and defend his rights, Gifter told the Jewish Voice, “The cop was probably upset because I caught him committing an act (stop-and-frisk) that was just recently declared unconstitutional. Hopefully he will end up being fired for what he did to me.”