Cop-watchers are now YouTube celebrities. They’ve changed how police work.
Updated August 7, 2023 at 1:58 p.m. EDT|Published August 7, 2023 at 8:00 a.m. EDT
"GILBERT, Ariz. — Shortly after a police cruiser stopped a sedan with expired tags here on a recent night, a black-masked man in an SUV rushed over to record the encounter.
As a woman in the passenger seat handed her identification to a uniformed police officer, Christopher Ruff jumped in to advise her on her constitutional rights, holding up a camera to record the scene.
“Did he make it seem like you had to, or did he just ask?” Ruff asked her. “In the future, you don’t got to tell them anything about who you are.” Soon, a sergeant approached, telling Ruff to get back and threatening him with arrest.
By the end of the night, Ruff had recorded a half-dozen interactions between police and civilians, some of which he posted on YouTube. Later that night he encountered the same sergeant and unloaded a barrage of profane insults. It was a typical Friday for the 33-year-old, part of his personal crusade to stop what he sees as overstepping, oath-breaking law enforcement. His encounters with police have been viewed more than 65 million times.
With varying degrees of antagonism and legal expertise, the online movement known as cop-watching or First Amendment auditing has swelled in popularity in recent years, capturing the imaginations of millions of Americans who are examining their relationship with policing after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis in 2020.
Cop-watchers and auditors say they’re waking up an over-policed nation to its plight. They’re forcing police and government agencies to train their workers to respect First Amendment rights and are willing to risk arrest in the process. A fewalso are cashing in — experts say the most popular auditing channels can generate more than $150,000 a month through ads and subscriptions on YouTube, Facebookand TikTok. Individual auditors can earn tens of thousands a month.
“The reason we get pulled over and we get arrested is we are trying to show people that it’s not okay to just let them get away with it, because it’s going to affect the next person,” Ruff said. “They think it’s okay because they’ve been allowed to do it.”
But such encounters also have sparked backlash. Several states have passed laws or taken steps to limit opportunities to record police interactions, restrictions that have affected reporting by news organizations. Some law enforcement leaders accuse cop-watchers of selectively editing videos, misinforming citizens, inspiring vitriol toward police, escalating tensions during police interactions with civilians, and endangering officers and civilians.
Last year, a Mesa judge ordered Ruff to stop filming Mesa police. In July, Gilbert police issued a memo describing Ruff as a potential threat to law enforcement. The department declined an interview request.
Auditor videos have led to disciplinary actions for hundreds of officers across the country, and a handful of police have lost their jobs. The interactions and resulting legal fights have found their way to a federal appeals court, which affirmed the right of civilians to film police as a result of a lawsuit brought by a Texas-based auditor.
Sean Tindell, the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, recently met with his staff to discuss several videos alleging police misconduct, posted since last year by a Facebook watchdog group inspired and amplified by the auditor movement. Twenty years ago, Tindell said, similar complaints from citizens might not have been taken seriously.
“I’m thankful for some of these cases, because it allows us to light the do’s and don’ts,” Tindell said.
At the same time, he worries the videos have poisoned police interactions with members of the public who “got their law degree on Facebook.” Viral online confrontations between auditors and police officers also are making it difficult for agencies to attract recruits, Tindell added. “I think a lot of folks watch these videos and say, ‘I don’t want to put myself in that situation.’”
And there’s no shortage of videos.
Nebraska-based auditor Floyd Wallace recently posted a recording taken outside a sheriff’s station in Jacksonville, Tex., in which police officers stop him and pat him down, and he is told “quit running your dumb mouth” before they let him go.
Once the recording went viral, the police department received hundreds of phone calls and emails, some of them threatening, which overloaded the communications apparatus that also fields 911 calls, Police Chief Joe Williams told The Washington Post. The officers’ actions were lawful, he added, but some of what they said to Wallace may have violated department policy.
“When you encounter someone with a GoPro on their chest, you need to realize something’s up,” Williams said. “We took the bait. It’s demoralizing. ... It’s a gut punch. I think we all have a sense of embarrassment.”
Some auditors record police traffic stops, patrols or arrests. Others videotape from inside police station lobbies, post offices and city halls — or from public areas outside military bases, prisons and private businesses.
SeanPaul Reyes, arguably YouTube’s most popular auditor, turned on his camera at Suffolk County, N.Y., police headquarters for the first time in 2021, bored and frustrated, he said, after being furloughed from his job as a logistics director for a warehouse company.
As Reyes aimed his camera at vehicles in the parking lot, three men in plainclothes surrounded him, demanding to know his purpose and see his identification. His recording of the encounter has been viewed more than 400,000 times on YouTube.
Two weeks later, Reyes was a full-time auditor, posting videos of the police under the handle LongIslandAudit. Reyes, who was convicted of attempted robbery in 2013 and served three years in prison, has racked up more than 141 million views on YouTube, collecting an online following that swamps police stations and town halls with angry calls when the YouTuber is detained or arrested. He recently filed suit after being arrested for filming in an NYPD police station lobby.
His chief motive, he said, is serving the public.
“How many officers out there now know our rights better because of what we’re doing?” said Reyes, 32. “We have that video of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd because of a citizen journalist recording the police. If an officer went up to one or two them and said, ‘Hey, you can’t record’ and took their phone, he probably would have never been held accountable.”
Reyes sometimes supplements his own video with police body-camera footage of the encounters, obtained through public records requests. An officer in Danbury, Conn. was suspended for nine days because of footage in which he says Reyes would have been “dead” with his teeth knocked out if police had encountered him in an earlier era.
Clips of Reyes’s calm dismissals of police asking for his identification are edited and repurposed across social media, offering easy-to-understand tutorials of when you do and don’t have to show your identification to police.
Among the most popular aggregators of such material is the Lackluster YouTube channel, piloted by Dale Hiller, a former Los Angeles firefighter and Iraq War veteran, who started posting after he was ordered to stop recording a police interaction with his next-door neighbor.
Hiller stands out in the auditor movement, offering analysis of local, state and federal laws, as well as court rulings, to provide context for videos posted or submitted by others. Most material he highlights is not from auditors with hefty followings, but from people publishing their recordings of police encounters for the first time.
Hiller has watched YouTubers expand their followings in recent years by publishing videos of police interactions that others send them, and by finding new ways to encounter the police. He thinks some are beginning to enter murky legal waters — approaching officers in a loud or disruptive manner, or refusing to leave public buildings when asked. Others have outright violated the law, he said.
“It’s a show, and it needs to sell.”
One of the least confrontational auditors is Jeff Gray, who posts under the name “HonorYourOath Civil Rights Investigations.”
He often holds a weathered cardboard sign that reads “God Bless the Homeless Veterans,” positioning himself in shopping districts and at the steps of town halls in states including Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, and using a camera tucked in a shirt pocket to record police who approach.
Gray tells police he will provide ID if threatened with arrest. But he also politely warns officers that they are violating his civil rights.
Ruff, in contrast, could fairly be called one of the most antagonistic cop-watchers, Hiller said. He’s posted videos in which he shines flashlights at officers from outside a nighttime police perimeter, potentially obscuring their vision.
“They’re really testing the limits,” Hiller said of Ruff and his ilk. “But I think it’s important that the cops know how to deal with that without hurting somebody or taking away freedom.”
Pushing back against auditors
Arizona, where Ruff is based, has become a hot spot for auditing and cop-watching, so much so that some officers across Phoenix’s southeast suburbs have begun using yellow crime scene tape to set perimeters around traffic stops when bystanders with cameras arrive.
It is one example of how the most extreme cop-watchers are inspiring practices and legislation with major First Amendment implications.
In Mesa, Ariz., Assistant Police Chief Ed Wessing said police began seeing individuals recording the station and its gated parking lot entrances about six years ago. The first auditors were not confrontational, but the tone seemed to shift with each well-publicized case of police brutality or other misconduct in the region, he said.
Then came Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, recorded on a bystander’s cellphone for the world to see. Auditors began confronting officers at crime scenes, cursing at them and daring them to take action, Wessing said. Officers who identified themselves were sometimes doxed online, their phone numbers and home addresses shared by viewers seeking to punish them for their conduct on video.
Over the years, officers have sometimes overstepped when recorded, Wessing said, detaining and arresting auditors on charges that did not stick in court. Older officers generally had a harder time adjusting to the new reality than younger ones. “There’s no question that we had a learning curve,” Wessing said.
But auditors also have at times disrupted the situation at hand.
Three years ago, a man holding his father at gunpoint pointed his weapon at Mesa police moments after officers told a cop-watcher to retreat from his perch outside the house and he refused. Officers then shot and killed the gunman. No one else was injured, but the sequence rattled the officers.
Last year, the city spent $23,071 to delay the public police scanner feed by an hour, after realizing that Ruff and other auditors were using it to locate their next targets. The department said it gave access to the live feed to journalism outlets it deemed “legitimate.”
Arizona is one of at least six states that have tried to enact laws to create more distance between police and the public, with mixed results. A coalition of media companies and free press advocates successfully challenged a law that made it illegal in Arizona for bystanders to record police within an eight-foot buffer zone. Other states have focused on the perimeter instead of the act of recording.
“Most jurisdictions understand that if they out-and-out prohibit recording without the permission of a police officer, like Arizona tried to, the federal courts are going to block that very quickly,” said Grayson Clary, a staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.
In Indiana, a law took effect in July barring people from getting within 25 feet of police after being ordered not to approach. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) vetoed a similar bill in June. Similar legislation has been introduced in Michigan.
Support for such legislation has largely fallen along partisan lines, with most Republicans supporting the measures and many Democrats opposing them, citing constitutional concerns. A notable exception: Indiana state representative Mitch Gore, a Democrat who also is a Marion County sheriff’s deputy.
“We have some concern that bad law enforcement officers may attempt to perpetually push the public back further and further,” Gore said. “But these situations are becoming much more tense unnecessarily, and it was important that we give our officers the ability to de-escalate the situation.”
A history of auditor activism
Andrea Prichett started Berkeley Copwatch in Northern California in 1990. Early on, her organization focused primarily on bearing witness, keeping residents safe by observing police interactions in an unobtrusive manner.
“What had weight was the actual human being present at the moment of incident, and the technology was very secondary,” Prichett said.
Berkeley Copwatch eventually used public records and recordings to build a database of allegedly abusive officers in the Berkeley police department, and launched a class on cop-watching at UC-Berkeley.
Its members continue to eschew any dramatic confrontations with police.
“The screaming and hollering and doing all this kind of stuff, in my experience, is not an effective strategy for getting somebody released,” Prichett said. “It often attracts more cops to call for backup and escalate.”
The path from Berkeley Copwatch to YouTube stars was paved via court precedent.
Austin-area native Phillip Turner, 33, began recording outside Texas police stations and posting the results on YouTube in 2014. He says he was motivated by negative interactions with police starting when he was a teenager — traffic stops and other incidents he thought were initiated or escalated by officers because he is Black.
After launching his YouTube experiment, Turner was arrested multiple times for not identifying himself while recording, even though Texas law requires a person to provide ID only if the person has been lawfully arrested or pulled over while driving.
Turner sued the Fort Worth Police in 2015 for detaining him in a sweltering patrol car after he silently recorded their station from across the street.
The case reached the appeals court in 2017, and the court ruled in his favor, establishing for the first time the right to record police, “subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.”
Turner’s calm, quiet manner while recording was discussed at length in court. He says he acts that way with his online audience in mind.
“I understand that filming the police is already a touchy subject,” Turner said. “People who don’t understand what we’re doing feel like we’re out to get the cops. I tailor my style to not exclude anybody.”
Ruff said he’s not capable of biting his tongue when his rights are violated.
“I lose the professionalism, the politeness, the moment that they start operating outside of the parameters of their job,” he said. “How can you be nice to somebody who is willing to violate your human rights?”
Ruff goes cop-watching at night, searching for sirens or helicopters. He focuses his attention on parts of the Phoenix suburbs where most people are poor and Black, Latino or Native American.
Those areas have become battlegrounds in the region’s sprawling gentrification struggle, and Ruff sees aggressive policing as another way to clear out the poor and make room for the wealthy. Whenever police try to remove homeless people from bus stops or pull cars over for minor violations, Ruff aims to be there with a camera.
One of his most jaw-dropping recordings is among the first he posted, from a trailer park in Cottonwood, Ariz. It was New Year’s Day 2021. Ruff was working as a landscaper, four years removed from serving five years in prison for a 2011 armed robbery conviction.
A worker for the trailer park community asked what Ruff was doing there, he says, and he declined to answer. The employee called police. Ruff began to record.
“Let’s go into handcuffs,” the responding officer says to Ruff on the footage, after some unrequited questioning.
Ruff backs away, repeating, “Don’t touch me. I don’t have to identify myself.”
Even after a supervisor arrives, Ruff does not relent.
The 10-minute video became a YouTube sensation, with aggregation channels shouting: “BOSS LEVEL ID REFUSAL!!”... “TWO COPS GET OWNED”
But here’s what the video doesn’t show: After Ruff stopped filming, one of the officers found Ruff’s girlfriend and pressured her to reveal his name. He remains angry about it.
“They used her feelings towards me to get what they wanted,” Ruff said. “That really sparked some s--- in me right there.”
Ruff has since posted more than 300 videos. He says he doesn’t own the YouTube channel and is barred from sharing details about the revenue generated by the ads that appear with his recordings.
On that recent night in Gilbert, Ruff kept driving long after he told the woman in the sedan that she had not been required to give her ID to police.
Around 1 a.m., he pulled up to a stoplight, dash cam recording.
Idling next to him was the Gilbert police sergeant who had threatened to arrest him hours earlier.
Ruff leaned out the window of his truck and shouted: “Do the department a favor and eat one of your service rounds!” Then he gunned his engine through the green light.
The sergeant rolled up his window and turned onto another road."