For more on this story see Antonio Buehler and the Peaceful Streets, and Antonio Buehler Arrested Again For Filming the Police.

Peaceful Streets’ Police-Transparency Activists Defiant After Second Arrest, Plan Thursday Night Mass Copwatch

Do police need a 60-foot bubble of safety from activists with cameras? That’s the claim Austin Police Department is making in the wake of the second arrest of a police transparency activist.

Antonio flashes a peace sign while exiting the Travis County Jail.

Flanked by allies, Antonio Buehler exits the Travis County Jail last Sunday after his second arrest (Photo: Sarah Dickerson @ChapeauDefee, used with permission)

Antonio Buehler’s first arrest came last New Years Eve, when this Iraq Veteran and Westpoint graduate was accused of spitting on a police officer while filming a traffic stop turned brutal. This arrest inspired the formation of Peaceful Streets, which gave out 100 digital cameras to community activists at a police transparency summit earlier this year. Saturday night on one of their regular downtown copwatch outings, Buehler was singled out of a group of four for arrest.

Now Austin Police Department claims they may institute a new policy requiring cameras to keep 50 feet or more away from police at all times according to KEYE TV, claiming that the presence of cameras agitated the arrestee:

“The individual became really agitated to the point the officer had to use more force,” [Commander Troy] Gay said.

Now APD wants a policy change. They say people should be allowed to exercise their first amendment right, but they need more distance to do their job.

“We would like them to be 50 or 60 feet,” Gay said.

Most mainstream media outlets are repeating APD’s claims that Buehler’s presence interfered with arrest. Buehler tells a very different story in Pixiq:

On Saturday night, police responded to an incident where a man had pushed his fiancée down to the ground. It turned out, the man had a warrant, which is why he was arrested. Buehler and other activists began recording the interaction.

“She walked up to us and I told her we were filming for her safety and she hugged me and walked over to her fiancée and told him,” Buehler said.

“He looks at me and gives me the thumbs up sign.”

But as two cops led the man away and Buehler and another activist began following, a third cop arrived and began ordering “Mr. Buehler” to back away.

“I was standing more than 25 feet away,” Buehler said.

While the cop kept ordering Buehler to back away, the handcuffed suspect began threatening Buehler by saying he is going to kick his ass.

The cop, who Buehler believes may be named “Berry,” then asks the suspect whether Buehler was harassing him. The suspect says yes, which is when the cop made the arrest.

The American Civil Liberties Union firmly believes You Have Every Right to Photograph That Cop. I asked Dotty Griffith, Public Education Director of the ACLU of Texas how that applies to the Lone Star State in particular:

There are not any Texas cases on the right of activists to record police activities, but most courts that have addressed the issue agree that videotaping an officer in the performance of his public duties is protected by the First Amendment.  Like other forms of free speech, videotaping police is subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.  In short, the activist can’t interfere with the officer’s work.  The First Amendment protects the rights of citizens to record police officers engaged in the performance of their public duties, so long as citizens don’t interfere with police activities, simply recording what is going on is a valuable tool for ensuring transparency and accountability.

As to the proposed 60-foot policy, 60 feet is a one-size-fits-all approach that is probably unnecessary and impractical in some settings and necessary in other situations. Law enforcement routinely cites the totality of circumstances as reasoning for a decision (like use of force).  I don’t think it is possible to say that videographers closer to police than 60 feet would in all instances endanger officers and public safety. The distance is certainly a one-size-fits-all approach to a wide variety of circumstances.

PSP logo: A peace sign over the Austin skyline

The Peaceful Streets Project logo

The Department of Justice issued a statement in relation to another case that seems applicable here:

“Because recording police officers in the public discharge of their duties is protected by the First Amendment, policies should prohibit interference with recording of police activities except in narrowly circumscribed situations….Officers should be advised not to threaten, intimidate, or otherwise discourage an individual from recording police officer enforcement activities or intentionally block or obstruct cameras or recording devices.”

Buehler’s arrest comes just days after he accepted the Texans For Accountable Government (TAG) Activist of the Year Award for his work since New Years. I asked TAG’s Heather Fazio what she thought of this new development:

APD’s new, arbitrary, and unreasonable policy preventing press from documenting their public behavior and execution of duty is offensive and repugnant to a free society.

Long time Austin activist Debbie Russell issued her own scathing criticism of the policy:

Does media get an “exemption” from this new rule? Who is “media?” Do you have to get permits to distinguish yourselves from us lowly bloggers and livestreamers?

Having some experience with the measurements of 6th St. [Austin's nightclub district where Peaceful Streets activists often film] … essentially, you’d have to stand against the wall of one building to videotape a police detainment directly across 6th St. on the other sidewalk, and THEY’D have to press up against that building to get 50′ between you. …

Is that reasonable? At all? Picture ALL the other people gaily strolling on the sidewalk, right next to officers detaining someone. They aren’t a threat…but THOSE GUYS, WAY over THERE, in the red t-shirts with the peace signs, and the videocams – yeah…THEY are a threat.

The Peaceful Streets Project is standing up to what they believe to be police intimidation of their first amendment right to film:

Join the Peaceful Streets Project and allies in telling APD that their bully tactics will not work on the people of Austin! The Austin Police Department thinks that they can intimidate peaceful people into cowering before their badges instead of standing up for their civil liberties. After a press conference to be held earlier in the day, the Peaceful Streets Project is organizing a cop watch in response to APD’s thuggish actions against Antonio. Please join us as we take back our streets!

Tonight (Thursday, August 30 2012) the group is meeting at 10:30pm at Valhalla on 710 Red River, just off 6th Street where Antonio was arrested on Saturday. Copwatching activists are asked to bring their digital cameras or smartphones, and to either wear red or a Peaceful Streets T-shirt.