Is this “busking,” “extreme panhandling” or “cop-taunting”?

I saw this post on the subreddit r/albany the other day; apparently last week a local singer took time to set up his guitar and played songs in a storefront entranceway at the corner of State and North Pearl Streets.

What happened next was captured on video.  Apparently a police officer told the singer that the performance needed to stop, in that he was performing without a permit.  The singer responded that he was within his rights to perform on the streets.  The discussion escalated when another person asked the policeman why the performance had to stop.

You know what?  Just watch the video.

Yeah, this kinda bothers me.  We don’t need this kind of harassment, nobody does.  It’s not fair, and nobody deserves this kind of treatment.

Which is why the musician and the camera operator should immediately apologize to this police officer.

Hear me out.

It doesn’t matter if the kid was performing for a few pennies or if he fancies himself as the next Billy Bragg.  The minute you set up something – whether it’s a guitar case or a hat or a tin can – and you expect people to toss coins into it while you perform, then you’re involved in a paid performance.  And if you are doing something like that, then you need to acquire a permit from the City of Albany to do so.  Go to City Hall, Room 202, see Nala Woodard, City Clerk, call at (518) 434-5090, or e-mail at cityclerk@ci.albany.ny.us.  If you need a permit for this, it can be ordered.  If you DON’T need a permit, they can let you know that as well (if you don’t need a permit, then ask for a letter from the clerk stating that no permit is necessary for your actions).

Then things escalate when the videographer starts interviewing the policeman as if she’s the second coming of Christianne Amanpour.  Now it’s an ambush.  This is the equivalent of seeing Kanye West, walking up to him and cursing at him, and making sure your camera is running when Kanye swings at you.  Great, now you’ve got “Yeezus-gets-violent-with-a-fan” footage to plaster all over social media.

And while we’re at it, just calling yourself a “journalist” because you’re recording video footage on your cell phone doesn’t make you a journalist any more than my several attempts to win at the game of Operation suddenly makes me a thoracic surgeon.  And if you say you’re a journalist and the officer expects you to provide identification – I don’t know, say a media badge or some sort of credentials or a driver’s license – and you refuse to do so…

I should also note that the original source of the YouTube clip features several comments that are anti-police, both from the video poster and from commenters.  The video clip has also surfaced on several subreddits, including in /r/badcopnodonut and /r/amifreetogo.  The original poster also makes some serious comments about the situation, including:

“Officer … rolled up on me during my third song to tell me I had to stop. This in Albany, where the Arts are encouraged and nourished, so say some … for no reason he detained us both and wrote me a ticket for, of all things, “disorderly conduct.” He even tried to grab the camera out of my witness’s hand. As you can see here, NOTHING about my conduct was even remotely disorderly. (That didn’t keep one woman, who had not seen the goings-on, from calling out to thank the several officers who eventually showed up for back-up, for their “service.” Every junta has its fans.)
PS since the officer would not say what ordinance he was referring to when he told me to stop playing, but instead advised us to “go to city hall” and they would explain it to me there, and that I needed to “get a permit,” we went to city hall as soon as he let me go. No one at city hall knew anything about any ordinance authorizing an officer to chase away a busker, nor is there any need for a permit of any kind, according to the City Clerk’s office. And yet, somehow, I have a court date for this and am facing jail. Stay tuned.”

Easy, son… it’s not like you’re going up to Dannemora for ten years.  At the worst, you’ll probably pay a fine.

I understand that the tensions between citizens and law enforcement in the Capital District have been escalating for years.  I get that people are angry about all the red-light cameras being installed at intersections.

And I get that people have issues with cops.  I wasn’t speeding.  I did make a safe lane change.  I’m on my way to get that taillight fixed.  Oh come on, what am I, another part of your mandated ticket quota?  If I get you a dozen glazed chocolate donuts, will you leave me alone?

I realize that some people will look at the YouTube clip and assume that the officer was too aggressive, just harassing an innocent musician and threatening a journalist.  Bad cops, bad cops…

I’m sorry, but what I see instead is a musician that tried to argue with the police over something insignificant – dude, you can perform all the songs you want, just get a permit and have a freakin’ three-hour concert already.  And to top it all off, suddenly you have a friend with a video camera, someone who barges in out of nowhere to start grilling the cop with questions – and then, when the officer is trying to do his job, you decide to film his actions and hope for a confrontation – only to then have the video footage appear all over social media to shame the officer.

Great way to improve citizen-law enforcement relations, I guess.

What say you, my dear blog readers?  Who do you think is at fault here – the musician, the officer, the videographer, all of them, none of them?  Your opinion matters.  Just keep it clean and free of barnyard language.

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40 thoughts on “Is this “busking,” “extreme panhandling” or “cop-taunting”?”

  1. Mr. Miller, it’s very strange that you never mention that Officer Glenn Szelest showed up drunk for duty some years ago and was only able to avoid discipline through some fancy police union footwork. The story was covered at length by the Times-Union. What kind of journalist would neglect such a detail?

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    1. Honestly, whatever that officer did TEN YEARS AGO has no relevance to the event that happened last week. There’s no reason to go over an officer’s full curriculum vitae based on this one incident. By that argument, should we then recount every historical transgression by the musician or by the videographer into this issue as well?

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      1. Neither the musician or the videographer is a public servant responsible for enforcing the law. Officer Szelest, by some inscrutible machinations of his police union, is. Your coverage of the people involved in this incident remains one-sided and misleading.

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        1. The officer showing up drunk for work ten years ago is not relevant to this matter and Chuck is right on that point. Further, he is a blogger, not a reporter for the Times Union, and this is his blog. If you don’t like go get your own blog smart guy. Do you even know what reporters do? Chuck is an unpaid blogger who posed a question for people to respond to. He’s a private citizen, not your water boy.

          And if this was really about “busking” why not do it in front of a biker bar or some joints down the South End or Arbor Hill – on a Friday or Saturday night instead of the middle of the week during the day? I’ll tell you why, because those two little narcissists don’t give a $#@% about social justice, the 1st amendment, or busking. They’re just out for their 15 minutes of fame.

          But I’ll you what, if they want to be heroes, I’ll not only drive them down to a biker bar or a dive bar on a Friday night so they can do their thing and afterwards I’ll even up them pick up the fragments of their guitar, cell phone, and whatever is left of their intelligence and dignity that’s left.

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  2. Busking is a protected 1st amendment issue in the US it’s a shame you didn’t even bother to look it up. Caselaw sides heavily with the busker. This is police ignorance and/or intimidation while the real aggressive panhandlers ( besides the ones in office ) continue around the Madison following people back to their vehicles asking for money or food.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Busking_(U.S._case_law)

    “In the United States there have been numerous legal cases about regulations and laws that have decided the rights of buskers to perform in public. Most of these laws and regulations have been found to be unconstitutional when challenged. In the US, free speech is considered a fundamental right of every individual, guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth constitutional amendments, and in the majority of legal cases it has been concluded that practicing artistic free speech is legal. Busking is legally considered to be artistic free speech and clearly not panhandling or begging.”

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  3. And yes, Szelest’s history as a law enforcement official is entirely relevant. It demonstrates that he is accustomed to performing his job (or not) however he sees fit without any fear of discipline or repercussion.

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    1. Great – then I’m sure you’ll have no problem acknowledging the thousands of days he showed up and did a great job and not just the one day he showed up with a hangover.- no you’re just out to slam someone.

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  4. I respectfully disagree with you. That video clearly shows police harassment and abuse of authority. If it is true that the person went to city hall and checked and was told there is no need for a permit, then respectfully, you are wrong and he is right. Police officers are there to uphold the law. They do not get to command people around like a Simon Says game with no laws to back them up, and then charge them with the crime of not following their orders when people question it. These people had the right to question the officer as to why he was telling them to leave, and he had the responsibility to answer. He did not. Instead, he assaulted the videographer and took her camera. That has recently been declared unconstitutional in the courts. Officers do not have the right to prevent filming of their actions and especially not the right to take their cameras. The officer was unprofessional and, frankly, an embarrassment.

    Furthermore, standing up for one’s constitutional rights is not “something insignificant.” It is a very important thing that people need to respect. If these people do not stand up for their rights, if they merely turn and meekly walk away like you suggest they should have, then the officer just got away with violating the rights of civilians and will surely do it again, and again, and again until someone stands up to him. Who is next? The musician in this video is polite and deferential, is simply trying to explain something that the courts have agreed with: That performing on the street like this is a constitutionally protected right and that police do not have the right to prohibit this.

    I live in Albany, and I have a hard time understanding why this officer was attacking a street musician, who was providing a service to the community, instead of tackling all of the actual crime here. I also question why you would take the officer’s side? Do you think people should be stopped and bothered and ordered about without the right to question this kind of treatment? These officers on bikes are supposed to be there as community liaisons, to bridge the widening gap between police and the public. In short, they’re supposed to provide feel-good PR. This guy was anything but that. He was unprofessional.

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    1. Showing up to work drunk is unprofessional, harassing/ticking people engaged in 1st amendment protected activities is illegal.

      Title 18, U.S.C., Section 242 – Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law: The officer was in the middle of committing a misdemeanor.

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      1. Yes. You, I agree with, It is the author of the strangely inexplicable article, somehow finding fault with two innocent people minding their own business when they were suddenly harassed by a belligerent police officer bent on abusing his imagined authority, and then illegally charged with crime(s) when all they were trying to do was protect their own rights from this guy… that is what I disagree with. I’m having trouble understanding the thought processes of this author, given the clear video evidence that they committed no crime and that the officer was wrong. Is Chuck Miller unaware that the 1st amendment protects both the musician and the videographer? Is he incapable of doing some simple research as a journalist into this before opining? Is he one of those people who is just dazzled by a uniform and thinks everyone needs to blindly follow orders without question?

        Well, like the musician says, “Every junta has its fans.”

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    2. “who was providing a service to the community”

      A service? GTFO here. He’s a panhandler playing music in a doorway while state workers are out trying to get their lunch and walk around him. They don’t give two you know whats if he’s there and would probably prefer him not to be.

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  5. So if a surgeon is accused of malpractice, and a brief look at his professional history indicates that he once showed up for work drunk and was never disciplined for it, you believe this is irrelevant to to present case? Coming to work while intoxicated is not a little bad luck that could happen to anyone, by the way–it shows an egregious lack of judgment and personal responsibility, especially for someone who handles a firearm for a living.

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  6. You’re really going to try to write about how this officer was just doing his job? Even if he was right about needing permit, he did nothing but escalate the situation with every action of his. Cops are supposed to be deescalating situations. Imagine how fired up and out of hand this officer would of gotten if he had faced any real opposition or an actual situation that required force. The video was 44 seconds long… Think about it, we saw this officer unable to take any adversity for less than a minute before he became physical and attempted to take the camera… Sorry that’s totally unacceptable. Compliance with any officers requests just for the sake of avoidance of conflict is wrong and only leads to more of a police state.

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    1. From what I saw, the kids, an that’s all they are – immature little kids – escalated the situation. It waa a setup, and that is clear.

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  7. The busker had a right to be there. If he did go to city hall and there was no ordinance and now has to pay a fine then it was unlawful for the officer to stop him in the first place. Now an innocent citizen has to pay a fine for something he didn’t do. Grabbing an innocent woman’s camera and or phone from her hands is also illegal. It is 100% legal to ask a cop for his id and to film a cop “doing his job”. Sorry the busker is in the right. The cop abused his power and disrupted someone doing something they love legally. Sorry chuck miller this has nothing to do with our red light cameras and people disliking the police. The busker didn’t go up to him and tell him to stop doing anything.

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    1. Down with everything you just said, until “this has nothing to do with our red light cameras and people disliking the police.”

      Yeah, this has EVERYTHING to do with people disliking the police, because this is exactly WHY people dislike the police, to wit: ignorance of the law he’d supposedly upholding; gross abuse of power; physical assault of a law abiding citizen; unlawful confiscation of private property; and the deep seated understanding that there’s not a damned thing we (the general populous) can do about it — the man is practically untouchable.

      Is say that pretty squarely sums up civilian unease regarding officers of the State and their spy kit, wouldn’t you?

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  8. The cop may have acted inappropriately grabbing the phone, but come on. I’m tired of people just sticking cameras in cops’ faces in an attempt to get them to overreact and be confrontational. They are there trying to do a job for others. Things were fine and under control until hipster chick got up in his face and caused a scene. I’m sure people would really be happy if random stragglers on the street came to where they worked and shoved a phone in their face and told them how to do their job. Especially when their job is protecting the public. But these two wouldn’t know anything about that. She’s got no right to ask a cop for ID, who the hell does she think she is? He owes her nothing. This is just like that a-hole up north who was driving around flipping off cops and recording it and then was surprised when he ended up getting pepper sprayed. Yeah, it might not be explicitly stated that you can’t do that, but so what? Don’t be an a-hole. We’re trying to have a society here. Stop causing problems.

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      1. For what purpose? To be difficult? Confrontational? What was that going to accomplish other than preventing the officer from doing his job? HE is the one who asked for ID as part of HIS JOB. SHE is just being a troublemaker on behalf of her “busker” bf. Obviously the two of them have nothing better to do in the middle of the day than stand on Pearl St. and cause a scene.

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        1. Gimme a break. A guy is going to dress up as a fake cop in downtown Albany (which has police ALL OVER the place) just to tell a guy playing a guitar that he has to get a permit? This is reaching and strawman at its finest.

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        2. Hey, you asked for what purpose a person has a right to ask a law enforcement officer for ID. I gave you a valid answer. I did not once suggest that there was any impersonation involved in this incident. That’s just a figment of your own overactive imagination.

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        3. They wanted a cop to stop. If they were asking for his ID it was only to sure that that he was really employed by the city so they could sue them.

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    1. The cop was doing something against the first amendment therefore she was filming a cop abusing his power to intimidate someone. All of which is illegal . She was in the right. Otherwise this video wouldn’t be a big deal.

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      1. Not if he is collecting money/panhandling, which he admits on the youtube page that he “likes when people give him money”. That has less protection under first amendment. If it was really about “free speech” there are better places to parade around in your daisy dukes.

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    2. People absolutely do have the right to ask a cop to identify himself as such. Women, in particular, should do so in certain situations. An honest cop should have no qualms giving out at least his shield number and last name.

      These are only FIVE examples of men impersonating police that I found online. In the first two, police advise people to ask for ID if there is a concern or to call 911 and verify with a dispatcher to be sure that a real police officer is pulling you over.

      http://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/Man-Poses-as-Off-Duty-Old-Lyme-Police-Officer-Cops-322079462.html

      http://abc7chicago.com/news/woman-robbed-by-man-posing-as-police-officer/922188/

      http://www.wtae.com/news/woman-23-says-she-was-sexually-assaulted-by-man-impersonating-a-police-officer/33026462

      http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2015/09/01/search-underway-for-fake-cop-accused-of-attack-a-woman-in-duarte/

      http://www.mercurynews.com/crime-courts/ci_25089596/sheriffs-office-man-impersonating-cop-sexually-assaults-woman

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      1. If some ignorant little kid is blocking the door to my business and infringing on my trade, he’ll have a lot more to worry about then his rights.

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  9. The performing artist, isn’t getting much sympathy from me after referring to the APD as a “junta” in the video discription.

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  10. 1. Cops should not be enforcing nonexistent laws.
    2. Cops cannot stop people from recording them. In fact, there is no expectation of privacy for anyone on in a public area. As a photographer, that holds true for you as well, right, Chuck?
    3. People have every right to ask someone representing him/herself as a cop to ask for ID. (See my response to Blech, comment #9.) That said, Officer Szelest’s name was on his shirt.
    4. The officer did have the right to charge both of them with fraud. This woman is no journalist, and that guy is sure as hell no musician. I tried to listen to one of his songs and couldn’t get through one minute. That’s no exaggeration–I tolerated only 55 seconds, to be exact.

    Per the TU, [Cat] Jones and [Leif] Solem are recruiting musicians and artists for a protest/performance from noon to 1:30 p.m. Monday at the intersection of State and Pearl streets. Yeppers—snarling traffic and taking up parking spaces, during lunch hour, on a Monday, in the heart of downtown Albany, is GREAT PR for their cause. Musicians just don’t understand that they are only big stars inside of their own circle.

    If I’m in trouble, I’m calling the police, not a musician.

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    1. Like I said above, she may have the legal ‘right’, but what point was she trying to accomplish other than to escalate the situation and be confrontational?

      Looking forward to Monday when a group of 10 of their ‘musician’ friends can cause a scene and blame the cops for all of their problems.

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    2. RE: #2, you’re correct, in most areas of the US there’s longstanding precedent of “reasonable privacy” for purposes of making photos/video in public places. Even, for example, someone standing on a public sidewalk is within their rights to take a photo of you standing in front of a window in your home with the curtains open (in most cases). However, in the case of police, it is unlawful to obstruct them from performing their duties. This is a very fine line; recording from a distance is obviously not obstruction, direct interaction with an officer may be different depending on circumstances. And this is why we have courts, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself in one at some point if I shoved a camera in an officer’s face and got confrontational.

      RE: #3, as was pointed out elsewhere impersonation is an issue, typically the correct response is to note name/badge number and call the police (or even 911) to verify. Asking an officer for their ID just because they asked for yours is kind of a DB move. Also worth noting that unless you’re actually being detained, you don’t have to provide any kind of ID to police. This makes sense because you’re not legally required to have ID in the first place. New York has “stop and identify” statutes, but it requires the officer to have reasonable suspicion you committed, are committing, or will commit a crime. So, if you are simply being questioned, you can just walk away. You can always ask if you are being detained or are free to go, but keep in mind this can be somewhat confrontational and can escalate the situation; the best thing to do is remain calm and comply with any reasonable requests. Remember that even if you get a ticket, you get to appear before a judge with the officer, we have a legal system for these reasons. That system does not include fighting tickets on the street when you get them. The worst thing to do is purposefully escalate the situation. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which choice was made in this particular case.

      RE: #4, I loled.

      Sounds like mistakes were made on both sides. It’s unfortunate, but getting aggressive, on either party’s account, doesn’t help anything. The officer has been reassigned while the situation is being investigated, and Solem does have to waste time in court where the ticket will get dropped if there’s no ordinance against busking, but for now it sounds like things are being resolved.

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  11. Chuck, I’m surprised that you don’t have a problem with a cop illegally seizing someone’s camera. I’m no longer surprised that you take so many pictures of sheep…being one yourself.

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  12. Wait, so the cop made him leave because he didn’t legal permission to play for money, refuses to produce evidence that said permission is actually required, issues a court summons, and then it turns out NONE OF IT WAS LEGIT, because the cop was “doing his job” by enforcing a law THAT DOESN’T EXIST…

    Say what you want about the jackass “busker & co” and their tactics, but their civil rights were straight violated.

    Remember kids, ignorance of the law is only an excuse if you’re the one enforcing it.

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  13. First, I am not a big fan of the APD, however, these two little lunatics were looking for a lawsuit and free money and fame. That’s all this was. They wanted to poke the cops and get there names in the papers. This is about narcissism, not social justice. Albany has homeless people, kids in broken homes, a growing gang problem, and what is their social cause? Busking? Are you $%#@!&* kidding me?

    All I see here are two over-privileged spoiled middle-class white narcissists with absolutely no idea about how the world works nor any concept of what social justice is about. That was a total set up. Next time, arrest them and toss them in the county jail for a weekend. It will be a great opportunity for them to see up close the real problems Albany faces and not made up B.S. like this.

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  14. With Homeless sleeping in Our Parks waking up and excreting urine and feces where they rise from or the area there abouts
    Shopping carts being pushed around at a cost of replacement of about $200 added indirectly to Our food costs
    I believe Officer’s could invest their time more positively

    And culture in the form of Art Music Poetry within Respectful parameters could perhaps make a positive difference in the World

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  15. The cop actually committed a crime look up deprivation of rights under color. Shutting down a street performance show is illegal under federal law as is needing a permit to street perform. He violated the buskers freedom of speech.

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