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Putting some caps on the lenses

As paparazzi become more aggressive in the celebrity chase, law enforcement agencies are responding in kind.

January 18, 2008|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

As paparazzi become ever more competitive in their quest for the perfect tabloid photo, complaints about their tactics are intensifying.

TMZ.com regularly places stationary video cameras in front of celebrity hot spots such as the Urth Caffe and the Ivy, streaming live on the Internet in hopes of catching the comings and goings of stars.

Paparazzi who follow Britney Spears 24/7 got into a high-speed chase with the pop star late Wednesday night in the San Fernando Valley, prompting police to arrest four photographers on suspicion of reckless driving.

And when Spears was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center two weeks ago, so many photographers, celebrity reporters and onlookers crowded the hospital entrance that patients and hospital staff had trouble getting through.

In response, Los Angeles law enforcement officials are beginning to crack down.

"Their numbers -- and aggressiveness -- have grown exponentially," said Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore, who cited a case this week in which West Hollywood sheriff's deputies were called to a gym after paparazzi brought traffic on Melrose Avenue to a standstill as they jostled to photograph Jessica Alba.

Both the Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department have begun keeping a running record of complaints about paparazzi, including names and the agencies that employ problem photographers. The Sheriff's Department has even started photographing some celebrity photographers, hoping to document bad behavior.

The LAPD is developing its own "zero tolerance" policy, using the state vehicle code and traffic and loitering laws to cite photographers who block traffic and lay siege to neighborhoods.

LAPD commanders are also planning to use undercover officers to stake out popular paparazzi hangouts -- such as restaurants and nightclubs -- documenting what goes on and building cases against photographers who break the law. The violations could be minor, such as having illegally tinted windows or not having license plates (a tactic some photographers use to avoid being identified).

On Monday, the LAPD warned celebrity photo agencies that officers would be out in force at Spears' custody hearing at the downtown civil courthouse, promising to arrest anyone who disrupted traffic, blocked sidewalks or interfered with court business.

Law enforcement officials have long expressed concerns about paparazzi, particularly a newer breed of highly aggressive photographers who follow some big stars wherever they go. The market for such photos has increased significantly in recent years as Internet gossip sites have come on the scene, competing for images with the traditional tabloids and celebrity magazines.

Two years ago, the West Hollywood sheriff's station would usually receive one complaint about paparazzi a week. Now, Whitmore said, it sometimes receives several complaints a day -- not just from celebrities but also from business owners, residents and others who feel trampled by the crush of photographers.

"Eventually, someone is going to get hurt. I want to throw a rubber mannequin at them one day just to freak them out," said Liseth Wesley, manager of the Paige boutique on celebrity-filled Robertson Boulevard.

Some celebrity outlets are finding creative new ways to get ahead of the paparazzi swarm. Whitmore said the Sheriff's Department recently learned that TMZ.com was placing a Web camera on a tripod across the street from the Urth Caffe, where celebrities are known to hang out at outdoor tables on Melrose Avenue.

Harvey Levin, executive producer at TMZ.com, said that any suggestion that TMZ was invading privacy by placing a camera on a sidewalk was "absurd." "We're on the sidewalk shooting in a public area, the way 100 other media outlets do. We never invade privacy."

Sheriff's officials said they told TMZ.com the website needed to pay a $35 fee to place the camera on the street.

Urth Caffe founder Shallom Berkman strongly supports the crackdown, saying his restaurant has become overrun with photographers.

"They run right through the cafe," he said. "It's like we're invisible. It hurts our business and makes it uncomfortable for celebrities and patrons to enjoy."

Berkman said his employees noticed the TMZ camera across the street and immediately called sheriff's deputies, saying it was an invasion of his customers' privacy.

"They did it without permission," he said. "It really shocked me -- the lack of respect."

Deputy Police Chief Kenneth Garner said he was alarmed by the scene outside Cedars-Sinai Medical Center when Spears arrived there two weeks ago.

A group of paparazzi chased the ambulance from Spears' home in Studio City, and within an hour photographers and reporters were camped at the hospital's entrance. Similar scenes have occurred in recent weeks, including after actor Dennis Quaid's twin babies were given an overdose of the drug heparin.

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