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Jul 15, 2016

Update: Eyes on cops

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Scenes of violence caught on video recently have been a painful reminder of the strained relations between the public and police in our country.

This friction is not new. What is new is the technology: cameras and smartphones that record and transmit the violence live or within minutes.

In Minnesota, the person who captured the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting was in the car with the victim. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the videos were made by bystanders. And in Dallas, the first images we saw of the sniper shootings came from people on the ground, in the crowd. But there’s also an organized movement of people who consider it their jobs to police the police, and they, too, are recording. Some people call them “cop watchers.”

In light of recent events, we’re revisiting a story we brought to you last year. It’s a look at the cop-watching movement in Texas – including in a suburb of Dallas, where tensions over the practice already were on the rise.

You can find cop-watching groups in dozens of cities across the U.S. But some officers have pushed back, saying these groups interfere with their jobs and endanger the public.

In this story, Neena Satija – who works for Reveal and The Texas Tribune – takes us to places where tensions between police and cop watchers already had started to flare up in May 2015. In Texas cities such as Austin and Dallas, activists were being arrested and police departments were asking state lawmakers to step in.

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Peripheral Living, “Draw Me Something” from “Experimental Lakes” (Power Moves)
  • Jim Briggs, “Untitled” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Dabrye, “Hyped Up Plus Tax” from “One/Three” (Ghostly International)
  • Shingeto, “Huron River Drive (Evenings Remix)” from “Lineage” (Ghostly International)

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson with a special edition of the Reveal podcast. The scenes of violence caught on video in recent days have been a painful reminder of the strained relations between police and African Americans in our nation. First, two men, one in Louisiana, another in Minnesota, died in officer involved shootings.

Female:

Stay with me. We got pulled over for a busted tail light in the back and the police just ... he's covered. He killed my boyfriend. He's licensed, he's carry [crosstalk 00:00:42]

Al Letson:

Then in Dallas at a large protest against police brutality, a lone sniper killed five law enforcement officers.

Male:

[crosstalk 00:00:50] really?

Male:

Is that a cop dead?

Male:

It's a cop dead.

Male:

Dude that's a cop down. Dude that's a cop down.

Al Letson:

This friction between police and the communities they serve is nothing new. What is new is the technology. Camera phones that record and transmit shootings live or within minutes, and these videos can make an instant impact across the nation, even globally.

 

These videos are typically made spontaneously. In Minnesota, the person who captured the video was in the car with the victim. In Baton Rouge, the videos were made by bystanders. In Dallas, the first video images we saw of the sniper shootings came from bystanders who were in the crowd.

 

There's also an organized movement of people who consider it their jobs to police the police. They show up at traffic stops, hang out at places with big police presence, record what police are doing, and post it online. Some people call them cop watchers.

 

Last year, we brought you a story called Cops, Cameras, and Communities, a look at the cop watching movement in Texas, including in a suburb of Dallas where tensions over the practice were on the rise. Our story begins in Austin.

Officer Oborski:

You guys need to backup. Back up. Back up. You need to back up.

Antonio Buehler:

How far?

Al Letson:

When you start watching these videos, something immediately jumps out.

Officer Oborski:

Back up until I tell you to stop. Back up.

Al Letson:

These guys know each other, by name.

Officer Oborski:

Back up. Mister Buehler you need to back up.

Antonio Buehler:

How far?

Al Letson:

That's because they're constantly watching each other.

Antonio Buehler:

We are at DUI stop. Patrick Oborski is here and he's already barking orders at us. We would greatly appreciate if anyone is nearby can video tape this for our safety. Thank you.

Al Letson:

Reveal's Neena Satija picks up our story.

Neena Satija:

Antonio Buehler has taken hundreds of videos of Austin police. During the day he runs his own education consulting business, but most Friday nights he and his fellow activists drive around the city looking for police activity. I tagged along with them recently to see how it all works.

Antonio Buehler:

We are basically looking for sirens, we're looking for police flying by us, just driving around looking for action. It's in the poorer parts of town, the parts of town that have seen more historic police abuse.

Neena Satija:

That night, the group filmed a DUI stop and a couple of other traffic stops. Antonio calls them non incidents but he still posts them online. That's usually how the night goes, but he's had his run ins with the police.

Antonio Buehler:

Why are you bossing us around Officer Johnson?

Officer Johnson:

I'm not bossing you around [crosstalk 00:03:31]

Antonio Buehler:

You are bossing us around.

Neena Satija:

Antonio showed me this video. It's another DUI stop. He and his group started filming about 20 feet away from the police, but officers kept asking them to move.

Antonio Buehler:

We are now nearly a half football away from the suspect. Why are you being such a bully?

Officer Johnson:

[crosstalk 00:03:46]

Antonio Buehler:

I'm leaving.

Officer Johnson:

You're going to jail.

Antonio Buehler:

I'm leaving.

Officer Johnson:

Do not resist.

Antonio Buehler:

I was backing up.

Neena Satija:

Antonio ended up in jail that night for interfering with public duties, a misdemeanor in Texas. He was never convicted. So far, officers have arrested Antonio more than four times while filming or taking pictures of cops. He tells me he got into this almost by accident in 2012. The recording wasn't his, the video came from a police dashboard camera.

Antonio Buehler:

I was taking a buddy home from a party. We pulled into a gas station because we were running out of gas.

Female:

Don't touch me. You're on video.

Officer:

That's good. Come on. You're done.

Antonio Buehler:

While we were there, we observed a DWI stop in progress. Things at first looked normal, but then they seemed to get a little bit strange, primarily the focus of the police on the passenger as opposed to the driver.

Female:

[inaudible 00:04:43] video.

Officer:

That's it. Get out of the car.

Antonio Buehler:

They started twisting her arms behind her back. She was screaming and crying.

Female:

Help me please.

Male:

[crosstalk 00:04:49]

Female:

[crosstalk 00:04:51] out of the car?

Antonio Buehler:

We both just hopped out of the car. I walked to the back of the truck and I just started questioning the police officers, why are you doing that?

Male:

[inaudible 00:05:00]

Antonio Buehler:

I think I said what the F are you doing that to a female for, something to that effect.

Officer:

Stand up.

Female:

[crosstalk 00:05:03] video of this. Take video of this.

Antonio Buehler:

She was screaming, "Please help me." At some point she said "Please record this."

Female:

[crosstalk 00:05:11] video of this.

Antonio Buehler:

We both pulled out our cell phones and attempted to take pictures.

Neena Satija:

Then an officer walked up to him. Antonio tells him that's not your job.

Officer:

You don't know what our job is.

Antonio Buehler:

I do know what your job is.

Officer:

No you don't.

Antonio Buehler:

What are you touching me for? What are you [crosstalk 00:05:25]

Officer:

[crosstalk 00:05:26] investigation ...

Neena Satija:

Police say Antonio spit on the officer, he says he didn't. He was arrested for resisting arrest and harassing a public servant, but was eventually cleared. That whole experience led him to start the Peaceful Streets Project in Austin, a group that films cops on a regular basis, and they sometimes get arrested.

 

The laws dealing with cop watching are fuzzy. Most experts and police agree that everyone has the right to film cops. What people don't agree on is how close they can get to the action. In the meantime, police and cop watchers are clashing across the country.

Jacob Crawford:

We've got an Oakland cop watch, we've got a Ferguson cop watch, we got cop watches everywhere.

Neena Satija:

That's Jacob Crawford, one of the founders of the cop watch movement. He's also an investigator with a law firm that sues police departments for misconduct and abuse. Lately he's been traveling the country training cop watch groups and crowd funding for cameras. Here in his office in Oakland California, he empties a box of body cameras onto the couch.

Jacob Crawford:

Initially we were buying them for $40 a piece and we've been getting these ones now for 15. They're small, they can just clip on, the cop can't say you were reaching for something or pointing something at you. We've been handing out these body cameras en masse. We've handed out 200 in Ferguson and we're about to buy 400 more and the goal is by the end of the year to have handed out 1,000.

Neena Satija:

Activists like Jacob Crawford and Antonio Buehler say police behave differently when they know they're being filmed. They say police aren't as aggressive, but police say it's the cop watchers who can be aggressive.

Wayne Vincent:

They come up close, they sometimes engage us in conversation, sometimes very mockingly. They stalk police officers from the police station.

Neena Satija:

Wayne Vincent is a former president of the Austin Police Association. He says filming cops is fine, but he has concerns about groups like the Peaceful Streets Project.

Wayne Vincent:

My biggest nightmare is one of the followers of this group may take violent action against the police when they see the police doing something that they don't understand.

Neena Satija:

Police have also been weary of what the Peaceful Streets Project posts on social media. Here's one tweet from the project after the police shootings in Dallas. "Don't blame Black Lives Matter for dead cops, blame pig police." That was referring to Austin's police chief. The group also recently tweeted, "Killer cops need to be dealt with."

 

In Austin police are so concerned about what the cop watchers might do, that they're turning the tables on them, keeping watch on the cop watchers.

Antonio Buehler:

There's just so much stuff.

Neena Satija:

That's Antonio Buehler again. He's showing me thousands of pages of police emails and documents he got through an open records request.

Antonio Buehler:

I broke it off. Here's the grand jury related information, here's the information related to my arrest.

Neena Satija:

One document sticks out. It's a PowerPoint presentation put together by an Austin police officer. Here's the title. Criminal Profile of Domestic Extremism in Austin Texas and the Surrounding Area. Peaceful Streets Project is listed as a threat that could match the FBI's description of domestic terrorist. Antonio says that's crazy, that there's never been any violence between Austin cop watchers and police. I showed the PowerPoint to Austin police chief Art Acevedo to get his take.

 

Do you think that Antonio Buehler or the Peaceful Streets Project are examples of domestic extremism?

Art Acevedo:

No I don't think so. I just think that in terms of Antonio Buehler's a little bit misguided and a little disingenuous, but absolutely not.

Neena Satija:

The chief may say Antonio's not a threat, but officers have arrested him several times. Remember that video you heard earlier? The one where police kept asking Antonio to move?

Antonio Buehler:

Why are you being such a bully?

Officer:

Okay.

Neena Satija:

I showed it to the chief to see what he thought.

Officer:

Do not resist.

Antonio Buehler:

I was backing up.

Art Acevedo:

My response to that, I haven't read that report, but I can tell you that if an officer tells you to do something, you're better off complying with it and then if you have a complaint, he's got it on video, then go through the process. It's not in the streets where you should be having this debate.

Neena Satija:

Antonio Buehler says that's exactly where the debate should be happening.

Antonio Buehler:

I think that we need to change our thinking as to why should I back up, I'm not interfering, I'm exercising my rights. This is our means of trying to hold them accountable and they get upset with that. That's why they come after people who are filming.

Neena Satija:

This may seem like a modern movement, born in the age of YouTube and camera phones, but cop watchers say their roots go back to the 1960s and the rise of the Black Panthers, the militant group founded in Oakland California.

Male:

(group singing)

Neena Satija:

The Panthers staged marches and political rallies under the banner of protecting the black community from the police. They monitored police calls and would rush to the scene of an arrest carrying guns and law books.

Huey Newton:

[crosstalk 00:10:33] police and our community [out there 00:10:35] our area, our community as a foreign troop occupies territory.

Neena Satija:

This is the group's co-founder Huey Newton speaking in a jailhouse interview in 1968.

Huey Newton:

The police are there not to [inaudible 00:10:47] welfare or our security and our safety, but they're there to contain us, to brutalize us, and murder us.

Neena Satija:

That early era of cop watching didn't end well. California lawmakers responded by banning the open carry of guns. Later, the FBI launched a campaign to destroy the Panthers. Hundreds of members were arrested or killed in shootouts with police.

 

Most of today's cop watch groups don't think it's a good idea to carry guns while they're monitoring police, but not all of them.

Kory Watkins:

All right. Cop watch April 16th this is where you're supposed to be.

Neena Satija:

I'm riding with Kory Watkins around Arlington Texas, just west of Dallas. He and a few other carloads of people are scoping out police activity and staying in touch with a smartphone Walkie Talkie app called Voxer.

Kory Watkins:

All right hey. This is the Voxer check. Everybody check in. Ben, Franklin, Thrift,

Male:

[crosstalk 00:11:39]

Kory Watkins:

Kenny, Pablo, Bret [Sanders 00:11:44] everybody here?

Female:

10-4

Male:

We are here.

Neena Satija:

Kory's a 31 year old white guy. He's tall and skinny with cropped brown hair. He's wearing a narrow brimmed hat. Propped between us is his loaded AK-47 rifle. It's legal to openly carry long guns like AK-47s and AR-15s in Texas. In the beginning of 2016, it also became legal to openly carry handguns in the state with a proper license. A few of the other cop watchers out that night are legally armed.

Kory Watkins:

Kenny, don't forget about that pistol I put in your glove box, just FYI.

Neena Satija:

Kory is best known in Texas as a gun rights activist, but lately he's combined that with cop watching. He calls it Open Carry Cop Watch.

Kory Watkins:

If people want to walk around with guns and film them, this is America, we have that right to do so. It's protected and if they feel uncomfortable and they're afraid, they shouldn't have that badge on.

Neena Satija:

Kory's had a bunch of run ins with Arlington Police. The department wouldn't talk to me for this story, but you can get a sense of their concerns from watching videos like this one online.

Kory Watkins:

I'll show you guys right here. If you try to walk- hey that lady walked I'm walking too brother.

Neena Satija:

Kory's walking towards an area that's been cordoned off by police. As he gets closer, they get worried, and he walks right up to an officer. He's got an antique revolver on his hip, one of the few handguns that's legal to openly carry in Texas.

Officer:

Do not approach me with that pistol dude.

Kory Watkins:

Whoa whoa dude.

Officer:

Put your hands behind your back for me [inaudible 00:13:13]

Kory Watkins:

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Neena Satija:

The officer stops Kory and asks about his weapon.

Kory Watkins:

What reason?

Officer:

I don't know what you have on your hip. I'm trying to find out, is this loaded?

Officer:

[crosstalk 00:13:22]

Officer:

Sir, you walk up on an officer with a gun-

Kory Watkins:

I have a camera in my hand with both hands on my camera.

Officer:

It doesn't matter. I'm asking you is this thing loaded?

Kory Watkins:

Sir this is a black powder revolver.

Officer:

Is it loaded?

Kory Watkins:

It wouldn't matter. It's not against the law to have it [crosstalk 00:13:35]

Neena Satija:

Eventually, Kory tells that officer his gun isn't loaded. Another officer steps into the fray.

Kory Watkins:

I was walking down the sidewalk-

Officer:

You all are here filming us on a police investigation-

Kory Watkins:

Yes sir, and I have both hands-

Officer:

With a weapon on your hip.

Kory Watkins:

I had both hands-

Officer:

That causes us safety concerns.

Kory Watkins:

I had both hands on my camera.

Officer:

Nevertheless, you have a weapon on your hip.

Kory Watkins:

I told you guys repeatedly that I'm no threat to you.

Officer:

Okay. You got to see it from our point of view. We don't want somebody walking around with a possible gun on their hip while conducting an investigation.

Kory Watkins:

Sir, you're an officer.

Officer:

[crosstalk 00:14:03]

Fred. Frazier:

We are going to have to change the law because of these groups and the position they have put all of our society in.

Neena Satija:

This is Frederick Frazier. He works for the Dallas Police Department as a detective and a lobbyist at the state capitol. Detective Frazier helped draft a bill that would require anyone filming police in Texas to stand at least 25 feet away. If they're carrying a gun, the distance jumps to 100 feet. There are some exceptions, like for credentialed news media.

Fred. Frazier:

Distance is our friend. If you can keep a distance, we can do our job. There's no reason you cannot film from a distance and get the same results that you wanted in the first place.

Neena Satija:

Police groups praised the bill, but it didn't sit well with many conservative law makers. One called it an unconstitutional nightmare. It was withdrawn before it ever got a public hearing.

 

Frazier thinks the bill will come back to life when something bad happens during a cop watch.

Fred. Frazier:

Somebody's going to get injured or die from this and then everybody's going to say, what did we do to prevent this? Then we're going to go back and go, we did nothing.

Neena Satija:

Frederick Frazier said that a little more than a year before the recent Dallas police shootings. They've sparked a lot of debate about police activism and open carry laws in Texas. For now, cop watchers will keep watching and so will police.

 

This is from the same video you heard earlier where police were arguing with Kory about his gun.

Kory Watkins:

There's about three police officers recording. I think they feel threatened because I have a black powder revolver on my side.

Officer:

[crosstalk 00:15:47] picture.

Kory Watkins:

Look it. One officer recording right here. Police officers recording back there. This one's recording on his vest.

Neena Satija:

Almost everyone in this scene has a camera and a gun. It's like a weird video standoff, and each side is waiting for the other to do something worth getting on tape.

Al Letson:

In the year since this story first aired, a lot has happened, and yet very little has changed. The police, tasked with a tough job, feel like some of the cop watchers are getting in the way. As more news hits about police involved shootings, the cop watchers feel justified. Both sides seem to think technology, smartphones and police body cams, are the solution, but as both have proliferated, the issue of who's watching whom and why remain.

 

Neena Satija's a reporter for Reveal and the Texas Tribune. You can read her story at ReavealNews.org. Michael Montgomery co-produced this segment and thanks also to editors Cheryl Devall and [Corey McClaggen 00:16:54]. Our sound design team is The Wonder Twins, my man Jay Breezy, mister Jim Briggs, and Claire [C-note 00:17:00] Mullen. With help this week from Peter the Atomic Dog [Conhart 00:17:04]. Our head of studio is Christa Scharfenberg, Amy Pyle is our editor in chief, Susanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camerado lightning 00:17:14].

 

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.