Johnathan Kolleh fell in love with movies growing up in Liberia. Now a resident of West Philadelphia, the 27-year-old began making films about a year ago. Last week, that love of moviemaking led to an arrest and about 14 hours in a holding cell, all because he dared to fly a drone in the vicinity of the NFL Draft.
Kolleh began shooting about a year ago, after encouragement from someone at the Delaware County Times. Earlier this year, Kolleh released a short film called Straight Outta Delco. It was filmed entirely with the DJI Mavic drone, full of swooping shots of Upper Darby and other places in Delaware County, a suburb of Philadelphia.
It was a success for the first-time filmmaker, who goes by JnkyrdCinema on Facebook. Straight Outta Delco was viewed 281,000 times on Facebook, and even got a write-up in the local press. He decided to make a sequel: Straight Outta Philly.
Last Friday was the first time Kolleh went out to shoot for the his new project. He filmed with his drone near the Schuylkill River Boardwalk, a bridge over the river that splits Center City and West Philadelphia. In the early afternoon he went to Franklin’s Paine Skatepark, which abuts the Art Museum, to film skateboarders.
That’s when his troubles began.
As he filmed the skaters, Kolleh was approached by a police officer. Kolleh recalls their initial conversation: “He just said, ‘You know you’re not allowed to fly drones at this event,’ and I said, ‘Oh I wasn’t aware of that.’”
“This event” was the NFL Draft, held on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Drones were banned from inside the fan event held at the draft, but Kolleh was outside the perimeter. What could’ve been a simple warning turned into an ordeal.
Kolleh, who does not have a criminal record, says the first police officer who stopped him went to get his supervisors. Then those supervisors went to get their supervisors. He answered the same questions for everyone: What his name was, what he was filming, et cetera. Kolleh’s drone is registered; he says it also has a function that prevents it from taking off in no-fly zones.
“The next thing I know,” Kolleh says. “This off-road looking vehicle that says ‘COUNTERTERRORISM’ on the side pulls up. And these two—not even officers—like, soldiers with tactical vests come out. And they start to ask the questions. And it was pretty much the same questions that I’ve been answering. The good thing that they did, what they did differently, was they looked at that footage of my drone. They inspected everything and they said okay.” Then they told Kolleh they had to get their supervisors.
He hopped in a van and was driven around to the back of the Art Museum. He answered more questions. At this point, Kolleh says, he wasn’t told what he had done wrong. “A detective then comes up to me and says, ‘Hey man, can you empty out your pockets and I’m going to get you out of here,’” Kolleh says. “So I went ahead and emptied out my pockets, and the next thing I know I was being handcuffed.”
Kolleh was driven to the 9th district and placed in a holding cell. About four hours later, he said, he was fingerprinted and told what he was being charged with: Reckless endangerment.
He was given a chance to make a phone call. After making a call to arrange someone to pick up his two children from day care, Kolleh says he spent four more hours handcuffed next to the phone. About four hours after that, he was released and told he’d get a letter in the mail with more instructions. He says he was not told what he was being charged with.
Kolleh is relatively calm for someone who could be facing reckless endangerment charges for flying a drone too close to the NFL Draft. In our interview, he stressed the professionalism of the police officers. He said he wasn’t angry. He just wanted his drone back.
“I understand procedure, I understand law is law and procedure is procedure,” Kolleh says. “But if three waves of law enforcement—the bike cops, the detectives, the SWAT unit—verified that I’m not up to anything, that my drone is registered with the FAA, that I’m not doing anything wrong, then whoever is on top should have taken their word for it. If I’m being arrested, then you should’ve told me that I am being arrested.”
But there may be some good news for Kolleh. Cameron Kline, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, said there were no charges pending against Kolleh. A source tells Deadspin that the police attempted to submit a reckless endangerment charge to the DA’s office—and the DA’s office rejected it.
This makes sense, of course. Kolleh wasn’t being reckless, and he certainly wasn’t endangering anyone. In the past, a police source confirmed, anyone flying a drone over an event would just have it confiscated and returned to them at the end of the event
In early 2015, a man flew a drone over the Phillies stadium; police gave him a warning and let him go. But rules have changed. Late last year, a 20-year-old Drexel student was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment for flying a drone to film an anti-Trump protest in Center City.
“This person endangered a lot of individuals,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said at the time. “It was just dangerous for a lot of reasons… People who have these drones should take note that you have to operate them responsibly, there’s rules and regulations that come with them.”
The problem is: The rules are confusing and often change. The Federal Aviation Administration issued press releases saying drones couldn’t be used before previous major Philadelphia events, like the Papal visit and the Democratic National Convention. But none were issued before the NFL Draft.
Cliff Grimes, a worker at Center City’s Liberty Drones shop, said he was not aware of any FAA or other notices issued to drone pilots to avoid the NFL Draft—just the sign informing attendees that drones were prohibited. He said there are FAA rules that prohibit flying drones over large crowds of people. Kolleh says he was flying over the skatepark, not the draft.
Citing an ongoing investigation, the Philadelphia Police Department declined to comment.
For now, Kolleh is in limbo. He hasn’t heard anything from the police. He hasn’t been charged (and may not be). All he really wants is his drone back.
“I just want to finish the film,” Kolleh says. “I wanted to capture the people and how diverse it is and show the city.”