(Long Island Audit video)
An activist’s testy exchange with a small-town police chief is stoking outsize outrage on YouTube, turning what could have been a teachable moment into a public relations nightmare.
Sean Paul Reyes is a self-styled First Amendment auditor, asserting his right to record video in public places by staging confrontations with local officials. Those who question him are named and shamed on his YouTube channel, Long Island Audit, which boasts 184,000 subscribers.
A viral video and a dose of negative publicity is just deserts for police officers who assault and arrest citizens without legal justification. That didn’t happen when Reyes trained his lens on Pooler, Georgia, a Savannah suburb of 25,000 souls.
The nearly 24-minute video posted to YouTube on Jan. 16 proved Pooler police unfamiliar with citizen photography rights. After filming his trip to file a public records request at City Hall, Reyes proceeded toward the police station next door for a compliance check.
A sergeant approached Reyes and asked for his name, explaining that his trek through the employee parking lot made city workers uncomfortable. Reyes wouldn’t give his name or show ID. He didn’t have to, as Georgia state law only requires people to identify themselves to police when they’re suspected of a crime.
As cop and citizen spoke, Police Chief Ashley Brown and a plainclothes detective joined them in the parking lot. A circular conversation ensued, with police asking for ID and Reyes refusing.
Brown eventually told him to leave the lot, warning that Reyes would be trespassing if he remained. He ambled a few steps over to the sidewalk.
The officers walked away, but Reyes re-engaged them to file a complaint. Brown said he couldn’t film inside the police station and told him to leave. After completing the complaint form outside and returning it to the chief, Reyes asked for a public records request form and repeated the routine.
Police shouldn’t have banned Reyes from walking through an open, unsecured parking lot for declining a voluntary ID check, and they should have let him fill out his forms indoors instead of ejecting him from the lobby.
Those mistakes notwithstanding, the interaction was uneventful. No one laid a hand on Reyes, and neither weapons nor handcuffs were unholstered.
“Police Chief Demonstrates Why Tyranny Runs From the Top Down in His Department,” the Long Island Audit video’s title screams in all-capital letters. Reyes pairs this with an over-the-top YouTube description encouraging viewers to complain to Pooler’s city government on his behalf. His audience was eager to oblige.
Overwrought comments flooded the Pooler Police Department’s Facebook page, and the city was inundated with angry messages. Reyes sicced a nationwide network of cop-bashers and anti-government activists on the sleepy Southern town to demand Brown be stripped of his badge.
Three days after the video appeared online, Pooler was in full crisis management mode. My calls to the mayor, city manager and city attorney to get their side of the story yielded no takers. A request to interview the chief was routed to a voicemail account for the “Pooler Police Department complaint line.”
Even a cordial message for the Greater Pooler Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau went unreturned.
First Amendment audits may have started as an earnest effort to educate police officers and citizens about public photography rights, but they’ve morphed into performative police antagonism. Grifters provoke confrontations, cashing in on public outrage as they portray misguided or inadequately trained cops as sinister authoritarians.
Reyes is no civic-minded volunteer. He told the New York Post for a July story that he made $8,000 in his first month baiting cops for clicks. It’s more lucrative than his previous job as a warehouse manager.
Their combative tactics are jarring, but First Amendment auditors often have the law on their side. Coldwater, Michigan, Police Chief Joseph Scheid advises fellow officials to grin and bear it.
“We’re really going to kill them with kindness,” Scheid told Kalamazoo CBS affiliate WWMT last month. “We’ll talk to them and answer any questions they have.”
No conflict means no clickbait, and when videos stop going viral, provocateurs stop getting paid.
The surest way to send the “auditors” packing? Smile for the camera.
— Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.