Philadelphia police were criticized Friday after two short video clips were posted on Twitter showing a man being arrested at the iconic Art Museum steps for allegedly soliciting donations from visitors in exchange for taking their pictures with their phones or cameras.
Claire Wolters, a local journalist, recorded the videos and posted them on her Twitter account. She later wrote an article about the incident that was published by the Billy Penn online news outlet.
Wolters wrote that she saw the unidentified man sitting by himself at the top of the steps when he was approached by a police bike officer. She said the officer asked to see his identification and the man would not provide any.
The bike officer can be heard in the first video telling the man, “Sir, I watched you go up and ask them to take pictures,” and saying he was violating a city ordinance prohibiting such solicitations.
The man loudly responds, “He asked me.”
In the second clip, the unidentified man can be seen being handcuffed at the bottom of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. Wolters wrote that the man offered to provide identification at that point but a supervising officer said it was too late.
Nina Ahmad, a former deputy mayor in Philadelphia who was the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania auditor general last year, responded to the videos on Twitter by calling for Mayor Jim Kenney to “investigate this ASAP.”
Contrasting the arrest at the Art Museum with the city’s high number of homicides, Ahmad wrote: “Seems like a complete waste of resources to target this man.”
Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for Kenney, said in an email: “There has been a history of tourists being aggressively solicited at that location, and this individual was issued a [citation] for allegedly engaging in that activity. The mayor believes residents and visitors deserve to feel safe from any aggressive behavior. In addition, the mayor will ask the police commissioner to review this incident and determine if any changes should be made to how the Department responds in future cases.”
The practice can involve offering to take pictures without mentioning money and then asking for cash afterward.
Police Sgt. Eric Gripp, a department spokesperson, said in an email that officers were at the Art Museum around 1:30 p.m. and saw several people asking visitors for money in exchange for taking their pictures. One woman was issued a citation without incident.
An officer approached the man in the video when, Gripp said, “two uninvolved males interjected in the issuance and aggressively approached the officer. The two males began to encourage the male who was being cited not to cooperate with the issuing officer, while also loudly accusing the officer of malfeasance.”
The officer, who was alone, asked for backup after a crowd formed, Gripp said.
After more officers arrived, the man was handcuffed and taken to a nearby police station, where he was issued a citation and released, Gripp said.
Police declined to identify the man because he was not charged with a crime.
“There is an ongoing issue with photo solicitation not only on the grounds of the Art Museum, but also in the area of other tourist attractions throughout the city. Visitors often feel pressured by individuals soliciting for money in order to take pictures, and it often results in calls for police service from the individual/s being solicited — as well as witnesses, passersby, and employees of the affected attractions,” Gripp said in the email.
“The officers who were issuing citations today at the Art Museum are regularly assigned to this area, with their beat covering the Art Museum and its surrounding grounds,” Gripp said.
A spokesperson for the Art Museum said in an email: “Over the years, there have been reports that individuals have taken photos of people in front of the Rocky Statue or the steps and then demanded payment. We have alerted police in the past to this activity but we have not been aware of any such incidents recently. We heard about this one today from the press.”
Paul Messing, a prominent civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia, said that the arrest appeared unjustified based on the videos posted online that he reviewed.
“People in need are free to solicit handouts, which is considered protected speech under the First Amendment,” Messing wrote in an email.
“Unless there’s an ordinance I’ve never seen invoked, which I suppose is possible, I have no idea why the time of four police officers, and the court system, should have been wasted,” Messing wrote.