First Amendment Audits and How to Respond

Recently there have been instances popping up all over social media regarding “First Amendment Audits” of law enforcement and government buildings and practices.  The entire focus of these audits is to judge the proper (or often improper) response of law enforcement to the presence of a cameraman.  The hopes of some auditors is to have a poor contact with law enforcement, resulting in a violation of their 4th Amendment rights and or a bad arrest.  This obviously places the officer and agency in line for civil damages and embarrassing online videos. This also leads to interesting and valuable training opportunities!

The question is, when and how should we act?

A review of many of the posted audit videos shows us, extremely well trained and professional law enforcement officers acting what I can only describe as “childish” when confronted with an audit and a camera.  From us blocking their view, following them, challenging them for ID, or even worse, pulling out our own cell phone and taking pictures and video of them.  What is the point?  The videos are never taken well by the public audience, and the comments; I won’t even mention them.

I know, some of you may be saying “But terrorists, they scout locations and police stations are a target.”  I agree.  They certainly do.  When was the last time you found a terrorist standing in wide open view, in public, blatantly videotaping a public building with obvious disregard for the police driving around?  Probably never.  If they were going to scout a location, they would do it and you likely would never know.

Honestly, as a law enforcement professional for the past twenty years, I have seen my share of video cameras, and baiting of law enforcement.  At no time have I felt a threat when someone with a camera was filming me, my police station, or anything to do with us as law enforcement.  Remember, the audits are carefully planned to remain in a place that they can legally be, and there is no law about recording activity or buildings from a public place.  They are well within their rights to do so, and from my experience, the best response to an audit roaming around your police station public areas is to ignore them.  They eventually lose interest and move on to somewhere they can make headlines.

Consider the audits as a reminder that we do serve the public, and in such, we should adjust our policing and our methods to suit the situation. We shouldn’t be carrying heavy stones over glass bridges as law enforcement.

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Sergeant Ryan Brett

Sergeant Ryan Brett is the Vice President of CALRO and works for the Corona Police Department in Riverside County, California.

257 Comments

  1. Michael Barrett on June 10, 2019 at 8:42 pm

    Thank you for your service to your community. Being an LEO is a tough job, I was a part of military police in Hawaii when I was stationed there so I know a little about it. Trying to balance safety and rights can be a delicate matter, and it is unfortunate some LEO’s overstep their bounds and disrupt that delicate balance. I have watched many of these audits, out of curiosity, and uneducated or overbearing LEO’s only serve to exacerbate the situation, providing the auditor with exactly what they came for – a confrontation.
    One commenter said that everyone should just give up their ID when the auditors are near secure facilities like military bases for the sake of security. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who give up freedom for security deserve neither.
    Yes, these auditors thrive on baiting the LEO’s into making poor decisions, even if the auditor is being calm and respectful. I don’t know if its current policy in PD’s to educate their officers on auditors and how to respond to them, but it should be. If every LEO who came in contact with an auditor would, after ascertaining the auditor is not a threat, wish them a good day and just walk away, these auditors would soon have no viewers on their YouTube channels. Most people don’t want to watch a boring video of photogs and LEO’s exchanging pleasantries.
    Once again, thanks for your service and a very well-written post. Stay safe.

    • mm Sergeant Ryan Brett on June 17, 2019 at 2:47 pm

      And thank you for your service as well. To answer your question, no police departments do not train in these audits. They are fairly new to the scene and many, sadly, don’t consider them a priority. Now I am saying that yes firearms, defensive tactics, officer safety all should be core training. Without these, officers could be killed or even get someone else killed. No failed audit will kill you literally. They WILL however kill an agencies reputation and bank account if handled incorrectly. We still see many of them being done wrong.
      At CALRO we are providing training on these audits and are considering spreading the training to others outside of law enforcement. These audiences would include government workers and security guards.

      Thanks again for the feedback!

      • Abraham C. Levinson on August 22, 2019 at 12:11 pm

        Sgt. Brett – thank you for your service and your commitment through this forum to educate, enlighten and – through the dissemination of this information and awareness – hopefully de-escalate and urge law enforcement to quickly assess and move on.
        I have a question relating to what I see as another element here – that most often the 1st Amendment Auditors are claiming to be press, use the term journalist, and state that they are working on a story. While I can see that nothing would be gained from challenging those statements in the moment – there are rules of conduct for journalists that these folks are not following. First and foremost is that the journalist doesn’t create a story, then post it on YouTube. The Society of Professional Journalists posts the code of ethics on their site and it includes some key and (relevant to this topic) points such as the following:
        “Journalists should:
        – Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness. ”
        and
        “Journalists should:
        – Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.”

        The Ethical Journalism Network – https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org lists the 5 Core Principles of Ethical Journalism – and it includes the following key point:
        “Journalists should do no harm. What we publish or broadcast may be hurtful, but we should be aware of the impact of our words and images on the lives of others.”

        Under the guise of testing their Constitutional freedoms, these citizen journalists are definitely causing great discomfort to those they film, seem to relish it, laugh, harangue and taunt both private citizens and law enforcement and under the guise of “educating” them speak to them smugly and condescendingly – all the while filming. I applaud all the officers that maintain their cool for their patience in dealing with these folks – but certainly – shouldn’t someone that claims to be a journalist be expected to act like a journalist?

        • mm Sergeant Ryan Brett on August 22, 2019 at 1:57 pm

          Wow that’s an awesome post and I absolutely love that you bring that up. Yes! A journalist of the highest caliber will hold themselves to standards of conduct that follow all rules and ethical guidelines set forth by professional associations and employers. This is the same for police officers. Many are right in line with the ethical and moral guidelines of law enforcement. Some however find the need to stray from such guides and create negative images for us trying to do right.

          The only oppositional argument to the ethical guides on journalism is occurring even in major news sources and other media outlets. If you watch various news channels, like CNN, NBC, MSNBC, FOX, etc. each one will report the same story with night and day differences. Some may be telling the truth, some will skew facts to create opinions, and others will outright manipulate details to sell hysteria. Unfortunately the media today has become a serious money making machine. Feel good stories do not sell. That is why we LOVE these audit videos. Just check the likes on YouTube. Videos that show police acting as we are training them, (which is no contact or friendly contact) do not get anywhere near the views of those where police officers lose their cool and look unprofessional.

          Thank you for the post! Love it!

          Ryan

  2. John sanuy II on April 30, 2019 at 7:33 pm

    Hey there Sgt. Brett….it’s rare when you hear me say anything good about an LEO but you sir are an exception. it’s been great reading the questions, responses and opinions of others. Unfortunately some people frighten me. I mean, really cause me concern because of their viewpoints. So I try and respond back with a common sense approach to my point but it feels like i’m talking to deaf ears. I don’t think anything I say can change a persons mind if they don’t want to learn. As far as these audits go, I’m pretty much on the auditors side. For far to long we as americans have been baited by the police into committing crimes, and generally going against our own morals and values that we lose sight of when faced with these sting operations. And so it begins, auditors basically doing a reverse sting operation and LE cries fowl! The point of an audit, we can all agree, is to bring to light those who support our rights and those who don’t. Those who don’t are considered tyrants and that’s a suitable definition of their behavior. Usually from what I’ve seen, these tyrants learn valuable lessons that they will never forget. This is what i get from watching~ I believe it’s retribution from a false arrest in 1996 in Balch Springs Texas that directed my beliefs. You keep up your good work and I’ll continue to support what you’re doing. peace.

    • mm Sergeant Ryan Brett on May 7, 2019 at 8:52 am

      Well thank you sir. I also find myself on the side of the auditors in many of the videos when LE approaches and, with their limited training, begin the process of trying to figure out what they actually have. You can see it. We initially respond to suspicious circumstances. Once any officer sees that it is just filming, and cannot articulate anything more, they need break contact and move on. This is a basic principle.
      In more stark contrast, we used to respond to “suspicious persons” calls, especially in the wake of 9/11. People were calling 911 on people just loitering. It was a paranoia. As a department, we (Corona PD) level these types of calls and even evaluate going out at all. I like to think most agencies are getting smarter about their responses and training, but that just isn’t always the case.
      Thank you for the post!

      • Francisco Santiago on May 15, 2019 at 2:43 pm

        The responses from some officers is unfortunate. As a young officer (many moons ago) I worked in a small community. My father also worked as an officer in a nearby town. On more than occasion he reminded me, our peace cannot be disturbed and contempt of cop is not a crime. Do your job, be fair, be respectful and never forget these people are your neighbors. I think trust between LE and the communities we serve has been severely damaged by the well publicized bad apples we see in the media. Things have degraded to the point of us against them on both sides. People on one side feel the need to “audit” the other. Then there’s another side where just seeing a camera sets off a defensive reaction. This is not how things should be. We need to remember WE ARE the communities we serve and police as the example not the exception.

        • mm Sergeant Ryan Brett on May 15, 2019 at 3:33 pm

          Very well said and I cannot agree any more. I hope this attitude spreads.

      • Anthony Lopez on May 18, 2019 at 10:36 am

        What the auditors have become is shameful. On “we the people audit wars.” I am exposing auditors that abuse our rights. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTn2IHrck6U

  3. John Sanuy on April 30, 2019 at 7:19 pm

    testing testing testing.

  4. will on April 29, 2019 at 12:00 am

    Sergeant Ryan Brett how do you feel a proper audit would go… I don’t have the opportunity to communicate with the other side and id like to know what you would indicate as a successful informative audit…

    • mm Sergeant Ryan Brett on April 29, 2019 at 4:36 am

      Thanks for the question! That is actually a really good one, as the success of an audit depends on the knowledge of the agency and the approach of the auditor.

      With a good audit, the officer(s) will have a lacking of knowledge and will, obviously, fail the audit (demanding ID, stopping video recording, etc.). In absence of suspicious or probable cause, this is a fail.

      The auditor should be professional and carry themselves with a dignity. An auditor who uses foul language, insults, and other attempts to get a rise, only really lose audience from those in the market for education. Although they make for funny videos, they drive the wedge between officers and auditors.

      Hope that answered your question.

      • Andy Anderson on April 30, 2019 at 7:26 am

        Sgt Brett, first, I’d would like to thank you for your service and your comments regarding this subject. That said I would like to know, in your opinion, why the training, of not just young rookie officers but veteran officers as well seems to be lacking on this topic. I personally do not agree with anyone confronting an officer with the sole purpose of provocation and then using the constitution as defense. On the other hand, when an auditor is respectful and is not suspected of or committing a crime, all law enforcement should be aware of the individuals constitutional rights and treat that individual with the respect they are in titled. In so many of these audit situations, law enforcement approaches the auditor as if they are a convicted felon and not simply a citizen performing a constitutionally protected activity. Training is key to defusing these encounters.

        • mm Sergeant Ryan Brett on April 30, 2019 at 6:17 pm

          You know? I’m not sure. I can’t be the only one in the law enforcement field that sees the glaring lack of training which is confusing and embarrassing police officers. We are training through CALRO but I’m not sure many other groups are. If my advice can change even a small number of officers views then I consider it a success. We cannot keep pushing Constitutional rights back into the recesses of the grey area of law. Thank you.

  5. Jon Limo on April 24, 2019 at 9:01 pm

    I see it like Sgt. Brett, but I’d prefer lawmakers to make an exception for government / military / defense facilities – don’t get me wrong, I don’t want it to be forbidden to film military/DoD/gvt. facilities from a public space, at all ! – but here is what I mean:

    Nobody has a problem showing ID/License when driving a car, why should it be a big problem when dedicatedly filming restricted areas ( EVEN while standing on public property) to be obliged to show an ID if asked to? In my eyes driving a car is not suspicious at all. Filming defense facilities isn’t necessarily. But denying to say your name while filming defense facilities starts getting into the grounds of arising suspicion, from a purely objective standpoint.
    Basically these “auditors” are abusing a loophole that still has to be plugged. It’s less apparent to me that they help law enforcement officers to do their jobs, rather than obstruct and steal their time, while at the same time pointing out to our legislative branch that an exception has to be made for exactly these kind of situations:
    “unidentified person filming military/dod/gov. facilities while standing inside a certain perimeter / buffer zone on public side of property”.
    And a buffer zone could for example be a ~10-200 foot wide strip around a compound , width depending on location (inner-city, countryside, etc.) and type of facility (from weapon/ammo storage, nuclear research all the way to prisons and other less sensitive compounds). Also it lies in an officers discretionary powers to determine if recording person(s) are inside buffer zone, if yes they are obliged to show ID. Simple.

    I won’t even go into the terrorist argument, because maybe 1000 times the so called “journalist” is really a journalist or activist… but the 1001th time…
    Especially when law enforcement officers get used to handling these situations more lax. Then I can see it already coming… scouted out compound… intrusion and possible harm caused. And the officer will be like “B-b-but he said he was just doing photos for a public audit and he is a free-journalist!”….
    Why does it even have to come as far as that ? Why does it always have to make a bang! before we accept to see such an obvious lesson.

    • mm Sergeant Ryan Brett on April 29, 2019 at 4:41 am

      Anything and anyone can erupt into an attack. We can’t ban UHaul trucks from parking near Federal buildings. We can however be aware. Knowing that anyone can just walk into public areas and start shooting is something we have to be prepared for, practice, and work around.

      We cannot make photography and video a crime or even a suspicious activity (by itself). Officers just have to remain vigilant.

      • Josh on May 1, 2019 at 8:32 pm

        I truly commend you for responding the way you do. I understand that these videos and people have to be aggravating to deal with, but they are well within their rights to do it. You swore to protect those rights. We have to respect that even if it can get on our collective nerves. It’s nice to have definitive proof that good police officers still exist. Thank you.

        • mm Sergeant Ryan Brett on May 7, 2019 at 8:42 am

          Thank you. I don’t find it hard to be civil. I fully understand the auditors purpose and goals, and they are more often than not validated by the officers poor responses. I have been seeing many more videos with proper responses however, which is encouraging.

          Thank you!

    • John Sanuy on April 30, 2019 at 5:26 pm

      No. Absolutely incorrect. Your logic doesn’t hold water. If it did, then everything would have to be made to be against the law because what about the 1,001st time it happens then? See, it’s going to happen, just a matter of when. So let’s be proactive and make it illegal before it happens. Why don’t we keep things like they are, let auditors do their auditing and let government officials become educated and we all win? It’s obvious you are a person who lives by their feelings and if you haven’t heard I’ll be happy to tell you. Your feelings don’t trump my constitutional rights. Suspicious is not a crime, neither a felony or a misdemeanor so rather than write up new laws to pacify you snowflakes, how about you grow some thicker skin and keep your twisted comments to yourself.

    • Jake Macdoougal on May 22, 2019 at 8:46 am

      Why is it so many Officers (not all i. e. this is not a blanket statement) approach “CITIZENS” being confrontational, loud and obnoxious for example and completely trying to “DOMINATE ” any situation they approach and/or visually observe, and many many times there is no crime being committed nor should there be any suspicion of a crime about to occur. So what happens going all the way back to my day John Q. Citizen does not feel glad or even safe when an officers are present. Further, as a veteran i came up through the ranks and earned my stripes as a Military man starting out as E-1 and working my way up to E-5 before my discharge and in the military the only ones we called “Officer’ were College educated men and women who had been to Officer Training school, (OCS). It gives “Cops” a false sense of their own position in this society; for example, being called Officer when most are just High school graduates places them in the ” Lexion Above” citizens who they mean to serve. Last comment, if an “Officer” is trained to, ‘control, dominate and intimidate’ every citizen they approach and sometimes and yes many times we the rank and file are supposed to be treated with some regard in that we live in a “FREE” country, especially if we are not committing a crime and we are just enjoying our freedom. If these “Officers” walk up intimidate and then dominate whomever they approach how can you expect citizens not see and believe what the truth is in fact telling us. We no longer live in a “Free” country and its becoming a ‘Polic-state,’ especially in places like CA, where when there was no crime in grabbing a sleeping bag and sleeping on the beach or local Mtns. now if your caught, one is fined ticketed and has money “stolen” that is paying for what is fast becoming and for “Years” has already been a “Police-state” controlled by Politicians and Corporations who live in Mansions and behind great walls.

      • mm Sergeant Ryan Brett on May 22, 2019 at 9:20 am

        Well first, congratulations and thank you for your service. I understand your statement is not a blanket one, as not all officers dominate everyone they meet. There are of course a few that take this a little far. I can only surmise that this behavior results from a department culture, a personal view of the job of the police, and training to have “command presence.” I always viewed the job of police to include emotional intelligence, and a knowledge of when to be forceful and when to just be chill. Just as human beings are variable in their mannerisms, so are the officers that take the job. I am hoping that through new ideas and training, we as police can reform our approach to situations in which “domination” isn’t necessary. Thank you for the comment.
        Ryan

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