Antonio Buehler has a habit before he heads out onto the streets of Austin. He writes his lawyer’s phone number on his arm with a Sharpie. If he gets arrested he is sure to be able to reach her. Why would he get arrested? Because he is performing an act that many consider to be a civil right…filming the police in action.
“Cop watching,” as he calls his activity, is something that Buehler, as part of his Peaceful Streets Project, believes is a deterrent to poor policing. When officers are filmed, says Buehler, it tends to make those officers being recorded act in a way that is more respectful.
While many citizens believe that filming police is their right, members of the Austin Police Department disagree. While filming, say police, Buehler interferes with their jobs and ultimately endangers the public.
Says Police Chief Art Acevedo, “There’s a difference between videotaping the police and agitating the police.”
Many police groups and experts agree that every citizen has the right to videotape police in action. How, though, can that right be restricted. Where does the line between civil rights and interference begin to blur? While many citizens film from a safe distance, others get too close to the action and hinder police who are trying to do their jobs.
Another group in Texas, similar to Buehler’s Peaceful Streets Project, is Open Carry Cop Watch. Not content to just film the police, members of this group do so while carrying assault rifles which are legal in the state. If, say members of the group, police are wary about their presence, they shouldn’t be wearing a badge.
Republican state Representative Jason Villalba has proposed a law requiring those taping the police to maintain a minimum distance of 25 feet. If the person is carrying a weapon, the minimum distance lengthens to 100 feet.
Whether laws will be put into effect dictating a person’s right to film the police remains to be seen. For now, people like Buehler advise that those recording have an option. Choose to obey if a police officer asks you to stop taping or to back away, or assert your rights and risk being arrested. Each person must make the decision that is the best one for them.