By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008
NEW YORK -- He calls himself "Jimmy Justice," a self-styled "cop-arazzi," armed only with a video camera as he prowls the streets of New York looking for law enforcement officers who are breaking the law. His targets are illegally parked city government vehicles -- particularly cars of traffic cops blocking bus stops, sitting in "no parking" zones or double-parked.
Cop cars blocking fire hydrants make him particularly incensed.
"Something like that is just despicable," Jimmy fumed, pointing to a police enforcement vehicle parked next to a fire hydrant on 33rd Street on Manhattan's West Side on a muggy July afternoon. "They're never allowed to block a fire hydrant -- but they do it."
He posts his best videos on YouTube and sends regular e-mail to the union representing the city's traffic enforcement agents, pointing out the most egregious parking offenses. And he has gotten results, he said, with some parking enforcers being fined because of his videos.
"I'm using a video camera as a weapon," he said. "I believe a video does not lie."
He is a fairly big, stocky guy, and with his brusque and hectoring manner, he has been described as obnoxious, self-righteous and worse.
"He acts like an adolescent," said James Huntley, the president of the traffic enforcers union. "I believe he's a big kid, or he wouldn't go around intimidating people who are just doing their job."
But in the digital age, Jimmy Justice represents a new kind of citizen vigilante at a time, particularly in New York, when amateur videos are increasingly being used to hold law enforcers to account and shine a public spotlight on their excesses.
Within the past week, two videos have surfaced showing what appears to be police misconduct in New York. In one video, viewed more than 1 million times on YouTube, a police officer is seen charging a bicyclist and knocking him to the ground during a July 25 group bicycle ride through Times Square -- despite the officer's sworn complaint that the cyclist tried to run him down.
A few days later, a separate video appeared, showing another police officer apparently swinging a baton and beating a handcuffed suspect lying on the ground during a July 4 arrest.
The police department has been stung by the incidents, and the officers involved have had their badges and guns taken away while the department investigates. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said there will soon be a way for people with videos of crimes -- and incidents of police misconduct -- to send them directly to the police through 911.
In the eyes of civil libertarians and others who have long complained about police excesses under New York's "zero tolerance" policy, the increasingly common use of video by ordinary citizens has started to shift the balance away from law enforcement officials in questions of official misconduct.
"I think the proliferation of video technology does, in some sense, level the playing field," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "When we think about the citizen eyewitnesses that have brought to light some egregious police conduct that no one would have believed, the benefit is unquestionable."
However, the police union cautions that videos do not always give the entire picture, and officers worry about a flood of citizen videos by people who might not understand that police work is sometimes a messy business.
"The use of force sometimes looks violent," said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. "Pieces of video don't tell the whole story." With the police commissioner openly asking for citizen videos, Lynch said, "he's going to have to be very careful not to bow to public pressure and not bow to emotion."
Jimmy Justice -- a pseudonym he chose because it echoes "Give me justice" -- believes all residents of New York should be digitally armed and ready for action. "I think everyone should get a video camera," he said. "Or, if you have to get a new cellphone, get one with a video function." And when people get video of cops behaving badly, he said, "send it in to your local authorities. Or post it on YouTube or other video-sharing sites."
He might sound obsessed. But Jimmy insists he is just a normal guy from Brooklyn, with a job, a girlfriend, a social life and hobbies, including playing guitar in a band. Jimmy Justice's crusade, he said, is against what he calls the city's double standard on parking. Uniformed agents relentlessly -- some say ruthlessly -- enforce parking rules in a city where spaces are scarce, but they violate those same rules when on personal business, such as stopping for lunch or running errands.
"You can call it a vendetta if you want, because that's what it is," Jimmy said. "It's about the city's predatory policy of ticketing to raise revenue." When traffic enforcers park illegally, he said, "it's an unfair double standard."
Sometimes it gets ugly out there. In the two years since he began making his videos, Jimmy said, he has been threatened, punched and spit on, and has had cameras smashed to the ground. He said he does not disclose his real name because he fears retaliation by someone whom he has made an unwilling YouTube star.
And Jimmy admits that he occasionally crosses the line, sometimes verbally berating traffic enforcers.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" he shouts in a video at one enforcer who was in a restaurant buying lunch while her car was parked next to a fire hydrant -- as firetrucks arrived outside for an emergency. "Are you on drugs?" Jimmy shouts at her.
"I definitely try to pick it up when the camera is on," he conceded. "I want to make entertaining videos."
And that is precisely what infuriates Huntley, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1182, which represents the city's 2,500 traffic enforcement agents and sanitation workers.
"Sometimes we do have to make U-turns. Sometimes we do have to park here and there," Huntley said. "This man wants to glorify himself and get some ratings."
Huntley said he is more concerned about traffic agents facing harassment and assaults in the streets for simply doing their jobs. In April, Gov. David A. Paterson signed a new law that makes an assault on a traffic enforcement agent a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.
"We can have him arrested for menacing or stalking," Huntley said of Jimmy, signaling a possible new confrontation in the streets. "For too long, we've been abused by the public and the media. We're not going to be a punching bag anymore in New York City."