In the cold of February, as New York City police officers gathered for their daily orders at roll call, they were given a rather unusual command, for both its timing and its substance: If they happened upon a topless woman, they were not to arrest her.
The command was read at 10 consecutive roll calls. Each of the city’s 34,000 officers, in theory, got the message: For “simply exposing their breasts in public,” women are guilty of no crime.
Whether any officer encountered such a brave-hearted, bare-chested soul is not clear, nor is the reason for the Police Department’s concern about such matters in the dead of winter.
One possible explanation lies in the person of Holly Van Voast, a Bronx photographer and performance artist known for baring her breasts.
The order was disclosed in an official memorandum contained in a federal lawsuit Ms. Van Voast filed on Wednesday against the city and the department. The memo makes clear that bare-breasted women should not be cited for public lewdness, indecent exposure or any other section of the penal law.
Even if the topless display draws a lot of attention, officers are to “give a lawful order to disperse the entire crowd and take enforcement action” against those who do not comply, the memo says. “Whether the individuals are clothed is not a factor in making a determination about whether the above-mentioned crowd conditions exist.”
The suit lists 10 episodes in 2011 and 2012 in which the police detained, arrested or issued summonses to Ms. Van Voast, 46, for baring her breasts at sites that included the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, in front of a Manhattan elementary school, on the A train and outside a Hooters restaurant in Midtown. That last episode, the suit says, ended with her being taken by the police to a nearby hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.