CCTV footage of a “suspicious” person taking photos on the morning of Monday, December 16, outside of the Young Israel of Queens Valley was shared recently on a local Facebook group for Kew Gardens Hills. A lot of people posted their comments, most were concerned, and a shul representative said that the NYPD also thought it was suspicious and was looking into it. It was not just the taking of photos, but some of his mannerisms that called out a question.

The person who shared the video on Friday, December 20, wanted to inform the community to be vigilant, and added: “...a suspicious Arab-looking person came in front of his shul, took pictures, and then got out of the car to take closer pictures when no one was near the shul except for cameras.” She also mentioned an episode outside another synagogue: “The Young Israel of Hillcrest had a suspicious person on Shabbos in front of their shul, and CSS called 911, and the guy was still there when police arrived; they questioned him and found out that he was on a watch list and arrested him.”

Being cautious and on the lookout for potential threats is a must in our present society, but let’s return to the episode in the footage. On Tuesday, December 24, the president of YIQV released a statement that a Detective Little called him. “They had found the young man who was observed last Monday morning taking pictures of our shul. He is an 18-year-old student at St. Johns. But he is not a terrorist – he was simply carrying out a class assignment, which was to take pictures of cultural institutions in the neighborhood, and then to speak about them in class. The detectives verified this with his professor. And the driver of the car was his mother! I think that whenever any of us have contact with representatives of the 107th precinct, we should make it our business to tell them how much we appreciate their efforts on our behalf.”

The shul took this seriously, the NYPD did its job, and we need to be on the lookout for suspicious activity.

But what is suspicious activity? What should concern us and raise our antennae (not meant literally, or that might look suspicious!). I watched the video a couple times, maybe three. I wanted to observe what people felt was suspicious.

In free society, we are allowed to take photos, but we should attempt to do so in ways that are not going to worry people or make them uneasy or upset. We should aim for that, though that doesn’t mean that this is our ultimate goal or the deciding factor in the decision to take a photo or not. People worry about many things and at times make assumptions that are not based on fact. I don’t believe, as some had suggested in their comments, once the “suspicious” matter was clarified as a school assignment, that someone should ask an institution, or people who might be there, permission to take pictures (or to stand and watch). This is the public domain where people take pictures, stare longer than they should, and act in ways that we might consider to be different. If, however, an individual wants to spend time around a building, or enter to document something that is for themselves, or a project, or to alleviate his or her boredom, then a request would be made and vetted.

In the video that I and many others watched, I see a quickly-bringing-down of the camera. First, the person took a photo from a car window, then from the street, and then closer on the sidewalk in front of the shul. While it’s good to follow up, if there’s an inkling of concern (and the police do take these things seriously), the whole notion of the suspiciousness of casually photographing a place of interest has to be questioned. What can that do really? Is there no differentiation we should make between where a person takes the photo (for instance on the side, or an entry or exit point that is not the main one of the building, or doing so at night, or focusing on security apparatus)? Why can’t someone take more than one photo, just because others – you or I – might suffice with a single photographic attempt?

The fact that the environment we live in is perceived as dangerous at this time can cause and has caused worry, and institutions and communities need to be highly vigilant and train the community members and institutions about safety, security, defense, and “see something, say something” attitudes, plus employ unseen protections based on expert advice and real-time information. The front-line defenders of lay people should learn to better differentiate X from Y and not simply feel someone else will sort it out. When in doubt, we report, but we also should strive to look at the facts, ask others if we are unsure, and not mistakenly label “different” activity as “suspicious” activity.

Some threats are easy to identify; some are hard to discover even by the seasoned professionals. A camera alone, a person who looks different from what we might expect entering our “four amos” of space, an “unusual” mannerism that might be simply an uncomfortable feeling on the part of a stranger who knows he is not in his environment – all should be considered with some care. The fact that police followed up in this episode doesn’t invalidate the idea that more discernment is needed by any of us who see something or are anxious by released video camera footage, that carries with it, invariably, the connotation of a “definite” problem. Two people discussing plans to cause harm, or posting similar-style creeds on social media, are obvious dangers – but wielding a camera (or even a digital audio recorder) in a public space gives no indication, in its own right, of a threat. If three people get out of car, perhaps each heading to a different spot, then you can ask them nicely, “What is this for?” Some observers will need only two to raise the alarm; others might need an entire tour bus. It’s your call.

This student was doing a project. But a next “student” who comes along might represent an actual threat, which is why we should strive to use other indications – beyond the taking of some photos – to know if there’s reason to worry and report, or speculate on forums such as Facebook offers. Is an institution hosting a dignitary, perhaps a controversial speaker, in the coming days or sometime soon? That, if known, might be reason to question what is essentially normal activity.

In my own life, I have had worried looks from Boro Park residents as I photographed on the streets of their neighborhood (baseball cap on head), aiming my camera at the fronts of homes (and there’s been similar curiosity of the same activity in places other than Boro Park). I have been questioned by police on the Upper East Side when a couple reported my taking pictures of what seemed, to them, to be their window (there was a third-party restraining or protective order, something I had no knowledge of, and no connection to). I have had a detective place a call to my California hotel room after I photographed children at play at a local school, from public property, but right next to the play area. I’m polite, willing to explain, at times do move away, but also hold my ground. I choose my subjects and anyone – photographer or not can do the same – in a way that is legal and also respects others, allows some offered explanation, and also preserves our collective right to be curious and to partake of what free society allows us to experience. Each person can find the line that is comfortable for him or her, and those in charge of education, in the realm of defensive measures, can offer some sound advice so that the real threats are treated as such and the non-threats are comprehended for what they are. When in doubt, report – but ideally let’s learn to differentiate between the different activities that we see and the ways that others, different from ourselves, choose to act.

I realize that well-meaning people might complain that they don’t have time or interest to learn a new skill (the ability to discern) and would rather just report it or speculate with ease from their armchair by the computer or smartphone. I would suggest that there will always be those who discern better in any given area, but if you want to help identify suspicious activity and know how to protect yourselves and the community, it simply requires the will and some knowledge to be a more discerning person.

A last point is that a different approach is warranted when the locale is different (and it need not only be a military closed-area) or when times change, and then protective measures, or what constitutes “suspicious,” can be revisited. There is fluidity here and we can stay on top of that with some more effort and guidance.

 By Judah S. Harris