Cop watching – as it may come to be defined in the dictionaries it will likely soon be added to – is the act of recording police officers during their official duties to keep them honest and let them know we know our rights.
In Texas last week, a group of four Austin police officers approached cop watcher Philip Turner, circling around him as if he were a threat.
“Am I doing anything illegal?” asked Turner.
“Yes, based on your suspicious activity, we’re going to ID you,” replied one of the officers. “I know you’re used to this going one way based on the YouTube education you’ve gotten, but that’s not how we do it, OK, we’re going to do this according to our policy and according to law.”
The officer, who ordered the other officers to detain and search Turner, said the law he was violating was “reasonable suspicion.”
“You’re being detained for investigative purposes right now, believe me I know the law better than you,” the officer continued. “When you’re stopped by police officers in Texas for reasonable suspicion, you’re required to give minimal identifying information, that being your name and your date of birth.”
What that officer failed to leave out of his street-level law class is that officers require reasonable suspicion of a crime. By saying that he knows Turner got his education from YouTube, and adding “I know this makes great fodder on YouTube,” the officer ordering Turner’s detention effectively admitted that he had no reasonable suspicion of a crime, that he knew his “suspect” was just really just a cop watcher.
“You’re violating my Fourth Amendment, you know that right?” Turner asked the officers, accurately referring to the law.
Cop watching is by definition a lawful, protected activity – it’s the recording of officers in public during the course of their duties. When the officers initially approached Turner, one of the officers explicitly said:
“Videotaping us is fine, we just want to figure out what’s going on,” but then added, “You’re being suspicious right now, we have to figure out whats going on.”
It seems very clear the officers knew well what was going on. The only suspicious activity belonged to the four officers approaching a man they knew to be a cop watcher so they could illegally detain and search him for identification.
In contrast, another group of cop watchers returned to the same exact spot where Turner was detained and nothing happened. Some would point out that Turner was a young black man and the other group of cop watchers were not black – and say this is why only Turner was detained.
Others might say that the second group of cop watchers, who are friends of Turner, including Antonio Buehler, who has been arrested several times by Austin police, resulting in several court victories.
While it is impossible to determine whether there is racial motivation behind the police officers’ behavior, the contrasting videos recall the recent video of McKinney police officer Eric Casebolt detaining only the black kids leaving the infamous pool party as a young white man recorded video undisturbed.
Besides, thanks to Buehler, there is no reason in the world Austin police should believe they have a legal right to detain citizens who are recording. Perhaps they just did not believe he knew his rights.
In that, they were completely wrong.
“Even though Officer Shurley mentioned how great it was to post my youtube videos I feel like he was trying to prove a point by threatening and intimidating me,” Turner told PINAC. “I was just filming from a sidewalk and a Sonic parking lot. To my understanding I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Turner is the same man who was told he was not allowed to record in front of a Dallas police precinct earlier this month, the same “unidentified man” the Dallas Police Association referred to in a press release, insinuating cop watching could lead to a suicidal man in an armored van shooting at police officers – even though there is no indication he ever recorded police.
For all fledgling cop watchers out there, here’s some advice:
“If they’re going to detain you where they are not free to leave they have to have reasonable suspicious you’re involved in a crime,” defense attorney Kevin Bennet told The Raw Story in response to the video below. “I would ask the officer what section of the Texas penal code or what ordinance he had suspicion that I was violating.”
For all PINAC readers out there, the Austin police department number is (512) 974-5843. Feel free to let them know their officers are knowingly violating the First and Fourth Amendments.