The First Amendment Audit

By now many public safety personnel have likely seen YouTube videos posted by someone claiming to be a reporter working on a story, otherwise known as an auditor. These auditors’ videos record interactions while antagonizing an officer in a public place.

Reporters provoking police officers

The resulting videos typically show a well-meaning officer asking for the person’s identity and explaining what they are doing in a particular area. The reporter acts with defiance, asserting their right to film in public and refusing to answer the police officer’s questions in a manner intending to provoke the officer to act. Sometimes these encounters result in arrest or use of force.

First amendment auditors

Welcome to the first amendment audit. These first amendment auditors seek to get the attention of police officers by acting suspiciously inside or near a public building for the sole purpose of provoking a confrontation caught on video and then posting their success online.

Edited for effect

These videos are sometimes edited for effect to show that the auditor was just an innocent citizen minding his own business and was harassed by law enforcement. At a minimum, the officer looks unprofessional but the result can be far worse. Administrative and criminal investigations and lawsuits can follow.

I’m Muna Busailah, managing partner in police defense law firm of Stone Busailah. For over 25 years, I’ve represented public safety employees in internal and criminal investigations in all types of incidents including citizen video encounters.

How to prepare for those types of confrontations

Things don’t have to go wrong for officers. Public safety officers can easily prepare for these types of confrontations by taking a few simple steps.

Study YouTube videos

Number one, go to YouTube and study the techniques these auditors use to provoke officers into overreacting.

Be alert for “typical” scenarios

Number two, be alert for circumstances where a citizen calls the police because they see a person acting suspiciously, like wandering around public buildings or businesses while taking photos or videos. The auditors typically don’t act in a physically threatening manner, but often antagonize or verbally abuse other citizens to get someone to call the Police. Then you have the encounter.

Remember that filming is generally legal in a public place

Number three, remember that unless someone is filming in a particular area where it is prohibited by statute or local ordinance, anyone can legally film other persons in a public place as well as any activity that can be seen from a public place.

Be professional, courteous, and polite

Finally, remember to be professional, courteous and polite while interacting with an auditor. If there is no basis to demand a person’s identification, don’t push it. Avoid detaining a person or threatening an arrest based solely on the person filming in public and refusing to answer questions.

Don’t fall for their tricks

Remember the auditor is trying to get a rise out of the officer, trying to get him to overreact, lose his temper and engage in use of force. Don’t fall for their tricks.

If you are under investigation for an interaction with a recording citizen, get competent representation to guide you through the process. For more tips on how to protect yourself in the internal investigation process, click here to receive our free guide. Stay safe.

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