Good cop. Bad cop. Indifferent cop. The distinction doesn’t much matter to police-accountability activist Antonio Buehler, who thinks most cops are bad by virtue of their badge. “Good cops do pop up once in a while, but they quickly become former cops,” says Buehler. “If you’re really a good cop, then you wouldn’t stay silent when you see other cops abusing their authority.”
He runs through a list of examples. Frank Serpico, the New York City detective who exposed widespread graft within the NYPD in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was shot in the face. Adrian Schoolcraft, another NYPD cop who blew the whistle on police corruption, was abducted from his home on the orders of his bosses and forcibly admitted to a psych ward. Michael Wood, the Baltimore police officer who claims he witnessed his fellow narcs urinating and defecating on suspects’ furniture during drug raids, quit the department last year.
“That’s what happens to good cops,” says Buehler.
It’s the first Saturday of August in Austin, Texas, and Buehler is standing on the corner of Sixth Street, a world-famous mecca for live rock and roll. The Dirty Sixth is throbbing with activity. A teeming crowd of pie-eyed 20-somethings packs the street, staggering from dive bar to dive bar in the withering heat. Stern-looking cops sporting military style buzz cuts scope out the neon-lit parade, ready to spring into action if the fun threatens to tip over into mayhem. Buehler is instructing eight volunteers on the safety rules of the Peaceful Streets Project, an organization he founded three and a half years ago that regularly patrols the streets of Austin, looking to capture police misconduct on camera. Most of his team members wear red T-shirts with a peace sign on the front and the mocking slogan “To protect and serve each other” on the back.
“We don’t carry firearms,” says Buehler. This being the Lone Star State, many in his group are pro-gun, but he doesn’t want to give the police an excuse to shoot them. “No drugs or alcohol.” Buehler expects each member of the team to be clearheaded in case trouble occurs, as it did in June when Austin cops snatched the cell phone of and pepper-sprayed a man (not affiliated with Buehler’s group) for filming them. “Don’t jump between a police officer and a suspect.” There’s no set distance a citizen must maintain to legally video the police, but get too close when cops are detaining a suspect and they can arrest you.
And maybe the most important safety tip: “Stay in buddy teams.” In the event a member of his crew is busted, Buehler needs at least one other person to record the arrest for publicity purposes and any subsequent legal proceedings.
“If you want to stand up for your rights by standing up to the cops, fine, but there’s no bonus points for getting arrested,” he tells the group.
Buehler is 38, tall and thin with an impressive head of thick jet-black hair and the upright posture and raised chin of someone used to being taken seriously. He has a sterling résumé: A graduate of Harvard, Stanford and West Point, he’s a former investment banker and an Iraq War veteran who moved to Austin from New York at the end of 2010. When he’s not monitoring the police, he manages Abrome Education, a for-profit company dedicated to helping homeschooled kids get into elite universities. Not bad for someone who grew up poor in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town and whose parents never graduated from high school. He didn’t always hate cops. As a Republican turned libertarian (he’s embarrassed to admit he canvassed for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election), he was more concerned about the growing power of the federal government than police misconduct.
That changed in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2012 when Buehler witnessed an incident involving a DUI check. As he filled up his truck at a gas station in downtown Austin, he heard a scream puncture the chilly night air. An officer named Robert Snider was violently pulling a young woman, 28-year-old Norma Pizana, out of the passenger side of a dark sedan. Snider was angry because Pizana had ignored his order to stop texting on her cell phone. After throwing her to the ground, he and another officer, Patrick Oborski, twisted the petite woman’s arms behind her back to handcuff her. They then yanked her up by her wrists, a move Buehler knew from his Army training could easily have dislocated her shoulder.
“What are you doing that to a female for?” Buehler shouted at the cops. “She’s not a risk to you guys. She’s not doing shit to you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Oborski replied. “Worry about yourself.”
A tearful Pizana pleaded with Buehler, “Help me, help me. Please take video.”
Buehler whipped out his battered BlackBerry. The phone was so old it didn’t have video capability, so he began to snap photos of the arrest. After Pizana was dragged into the back of Snider’s cruiser, Oborski trooped over to Buehler and shoved him. “Who do you think you are?” Oborski yelled in Buehler’s face. “I told you to back off. You’re interfering with an investigation.”
The officer reached for Buehler’s wrist as if he were about to handcuff him, but Buehler pulled away.
“You just spit in my face,” Oborski grinned. “You’re under arrest.”
According to Buehler, he was frogmarched to a police wagon, where Oborski leaned in and threatened him. “Keep your nose out of cops’ business,” Buehler claims Oborski said. “You fucked with the wrong cop. Now you’re going to pay.”
Buehler was angry and confused. What did Oborski mean when he said he was “going to pay”? He found out when he arrived at the Travis County Jail. As well as being hit with the relatively minor infraction of resisting arrest, he also faced a much more serious charge: harassment of a public servant, a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Unbeknownst to Buehler, however, someone else was recording the incident that night. An Austin resident, Carlos Amador, had videoed Buehler’s arrest on his cell phone. The video appeared to show that, contrary to what Officer Oborski wrote in his after-action report, Buehler didn’t spit in the police officer’s face. “I would testify in a court of law that at no point did Buehler spit at the officer or make any sort of aggressive or inciting gesture toward him,” Amador told the TV station KVUE. Oborski was apparently lying. The district attorney was forced to drop the most serious charge after the grand jury refused to indict.
A less stubborn, more fearful man might have let the incident slide. Not Buehler. After he appeared on local television, he was inundated with calls and messages from people who claimed to have been roughed up by Austin cops. He was so fired up about the way he’d been treated that he formed the Peaceful Streets Project. He has since been arrested four more times on a variety of charges ranging from disorderly conduct to failure to obey a lawful order to interfering with public duties. Each time, the activist has beaten the rap.
Not surprisingly, cops can’t stand Buehler. In a confidential report he obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Austin Police Department labeled him a domestic terrorist. In 2013, Austin Police Association president Wayne Vincent blasted the Peaceful Streets Project when he told Fox News station KTBC, “We are fully afraid that this thing is going to turn violent before it’s over because Buehler keeps escalating the harassment. These people we’re talking about get in our officers’ faces, follow them around, constantly walk into the scene and are constantly talking to the people we’re trying to deal with. This isn’t about police accountability; this is about provoking and harassing officers to try to get the officers to react.”
Buehler is an example of an emerging breed of activists known as “cop watchers.” The Peaceful Streets Project, along with larger organizations such as the libertarian leaning group CopBlock and the left-wing Copwatch, are part of a nationwide network of self-appointed cop monitors who see their job as policing the police and filming officers on duty, looking to document police wrongdoing. It’s a multiracial, mostly youthful coalition that includes gun-toting Ron Paul supporters who despise the federal government and want to privatize the police; anarchists and progressives who want to abolish the police altogether and leave policing to the community; and Black Lives Matter activists demanding that cops stop killing unarmed African Americans.
The proliferation of video-recording devices combined with the popularity of video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Facebook means that anybody can be a cop watcher.
According to the Pew Research Center, approximately two thirds of Americans own smartphones. The American Civil Liberties Union released an app called Mobile Justice that allows cell phone users to document instances of police wrongdoing and upload the video directly to an ACLU affiliate. This ubiquitous technology has transformed the public perception of police brutality and proved to be a key factor in the rising tide of anti-cop sentiment in America, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1960s. The viral video taken by cop watcher Kevin Moore of Freddie Gray, last seen alive screaming in agony as he was dragged into the back of a police van, helped spark the Baltimore riots earlier this year and played a major role in the subsequent indictment of six Baltimore police officers for Gray’s death. In another recent case, the shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, prosecutors quickly brought murder charges against the cop who killed him, due in large part to video evidence that directly contradicted the officer’s initial version of events.
Cop watching even received a seal of approval from the Department of Justice. “As the ability to record police activity has become more widespread,” said the scathing DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department that was released in March, “the role it can play in capturing questionable police activity, and ensuring that the activity is investigated and subject to broad public debate, has become clear.”
While filming the police is protected by the First Amendment, that hasn’t prevented law enforcers from ordering activists to turn off their cameras. Cop watchers have had their cell phones confiscated and footage deleted and been arrested on trumped-up charges such as disorderly conduct or interfering with an investigation. Cop watchers call these “contempt of cop” charges, which they claim police officers know won’t stick in a court of law but use anyway to retaliate against civilians they think haven’t shown enough deference to their authority.
“Cops make up shit all the time,” says Carlos Miller, founder of Photography Is Not a Crime, a news website that documents police brutality. Miller started it in 2007, the same year the iPhone debuted. “They lie to protect their jobs,” he says. “They lie to protect fellow officers. They lie under oath. That’s why they hate cameras. For the longest time, they were able to go back to the office and type up an arrest report and spin what happened. And by and large, juries would believe them. Now that most people have cell phone cameras, it’s a lot more difficult for them to lie. They say we’re interfering with their investigations. No, we’re not. We’re interfering with their ability to lie. What we’re really doing is forcing cops to tell the truth.”
Cop watching is a new idea with an old pedigree that stretches back half a century. Then as now, many poor and minority communities felt under siege by excessively aggressive law enforcers. In the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, groups called Community Alert Patrols sprang up. Black militants would tool around the ghetto in cars outfitted with two-way radios. When word came over the airwaves of possible police harassment, they would dash to the scene, cameras ready.
A year later, in Oakland, California, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Black Panther Party modeled itself on the Community Alert Patrols but upped the stakes by adding a new element: The Panther patrols carried loaded shotguns and rifles. California law at the time allowed the Panthers not only to observe police arrests, as long as they didn’t interfere, but also to openly display firearms. Carloads of armed Panthers would trail police cruisers and jump out if they spotted an arrest, often shouting legal advice to the person being arrested.
By the late 1970s the Black Panthers had largely collapsed due to infighting and an aggressive, sometimes murderous, campaign by local law enforcement and federal authorities to destroy them. During the Reagan 1980s, criminal justice policies shifted rightward. As murder rates skyrocketed, politicians competed with one another to see who could be the toughest on crime, ramping up the militarization of law enforcement equipment and tactics. Police brutality didn’t disappear. It was still a very real issue for those on the receiving end, but cases were rarely prosecuted.
In March 1991, America awoke from its decade-long slumber when a shocking video popped up on the nightly news. A 31-year-old plumber named George Holliday rose from bed when he heard sirens outside his Lake View Terrace, Los Angeles apartment. From his balcony, Holliday used a new Sony Handycam to record four LAPD cops pummeling a black male during a routine traffic stop. The footage of the Rodney King beating—America’s first viral video—outraged a nation. Even more outrageous, three of the four officers were acquitted of all charges at trial. L.A. burned in what is to this day the worst riot in the city’s history.
A year before the Rodney King beating, 400 miles to the north in Berkeley, California, a new police-monitoring group called Copwatch debuted. Formed as a coalition of activists, students and lawyers, Copwatch began videotaping police who were in the process of cracking down on the homeless people, panhandlers and runaways living on the streets in the Telegraph Avenue area, the Berkeley equivalent of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. Chapters spread to other cities on the West Coast. In 2006, Copwatch L.A. filmed two police officers repeatedly slugging alleged gang member William Cardenas as he lay on the ground. In the video, he can be heard crying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” an eerie foreshadowing of last year’s Eric Garner cell phone video, which depicted Garner being choked to death by NYPD officers.
Then two things happened: YouTube exploded in popularity and Barack Obama was elected president. “After the election of Obama there were a lot more angry young white men posting videos on YouTube,” says Photography Is Not a Crime founder Miller. “During the Bush years, they were law-and-order types. But after Obama was elected, the police all of a sudden became symbols of government tyranny.”
Over the past few years, YouTube has become a giant repository of damning evidence indicting American law enforcement. Cops beating up grandmothers. Cops beating up handcuffed young women. Cops dog-piling on the homeless, the drug-addicted, the mentally ill. Cops pulling guns on teenage pool partyers. Cops working themselves up into a full-tilt fury over minor traffic infractions. Thousands and thousands of videos, so many of them they practically constitute their own genre: cops gone wild.
Even accounting for the fact that the videos don’t always reveal the complete context of an arrest, given the sheer volume of incidents captured by cell phones, camcorders, dash cams and surveillance cameras, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that it’s not just a few bad apples, the traditional excuse used to whitewash police brutality, but a widespread problem: This wanton use of excessive force is not so much a bug in America’s sprawling criminal justice system as it is a built-in feature.
Probably the biggest posters of police-misconduct videos on YouTube are members of CopBlock. The controversial libertarian organization was founded in 2010 by Pete Eyre, a former intern at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, and Adam “Ademo Freeman” Mueller, after Mueller was busted for selling marijuana. Eyre has a reputation as the sensible one, while Mueller is the wild-eyed true believer who denounces America as a police state, seemingly oblivious to the irony that if America really were a full-fledged police state, CopBlock wouldn’t exist.
Initially, CopBlock and Copwatch formed an uneasy alliance despite their differing political philosophies. That changed last year. “Because they’re libertarians, CopBlock is very pro–property rights,” says Miller. “When the riots broke out in Ferguson over the death of Michael Brown, some of the CopBlock people took the side of the private property owners. The Copwatch people were like, ‘Fuck private property. This is the only way black people can get attention.’ So a rift developed between CopBlock and Copwatch.” The rift turned into a chasm after the Baltimore riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray. In May, WeCopwatch, an offshoot of Copwatch, cut all ties with CopBlock and denounced it in a press release as a racist organization.
Not all CopBlock members are fringe fanatics. Their basic philosophy—summed up by their slogan “Badges don’t grant extra rights”—is a sound one. Few would disagree with the premise that police officers should be held to the same standard civilians are. But a disturbing number of its members spout wildly irresponsible and incendiary anti-cop rhetoric that not only celebrates the death of police officers but sometimes calls for their assassination. At least one member, Dustin McCaskill from Colorado, has been arrested by the FBI for making death threats against cops. For all their purported devotion to the U.S. Constitution, CopBlock members don’t seem to realize that credible threats of violence against individual police officers (or civilians) are not protected by the First Amendment. That hasn’t stopped the circulation of a YouTube video popular among CopBlock members entitled “When Should You Shoot a Cop?” that argues, “If you have the unalienable right to speak your mind, à la the First Amendment, then if all else fails you have the right to kill government agents who try to shut you up.”
“An overwhelming majority of the articles on our website highlight the inhumane treatment of minorities at the hands of law enforcement,” says Mueller. “To suggest that CopBlock is racist is completely absurd. As for the video, it was posted by one person and does not reflect the opinions of other CopBlock members. The video never made a call for violence against any officer, but rather was designated to initiate a discussion about when, or if, you should protect yourself against corrupt law enforcement officers.”
Because he once was a bad cop himself, cop watcher Alex Salazar understands better than most why some people hate the police. “I can understand the anger, because many of these people have been beaten up by police,” says Salazar. “I used to be one of those doing the beating.”
Salazar didn’t start out that way. “I was very idealistic when I joined the Los Angeles Police Department,” he continues. “I genuinely wanted to help people. I swore I wouldn’t become jaded and cynical like a lot of the older officers I met, but that’s precisely what happened to me.”
I meet Salazar for the first time on an unseasonably chilly Monday evening in late June on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Salazar is 49, casually dressed, stocky with a bit of a gut and a wide friendly face. He has invited some of his buddies to go cop watching with him tonight. There’s Daniel Saulmon, a.k.a. Tom Zebra, a short, unassuming guy who’s a bit of a legend in police-accountability circles for taking cop watching to new heights—literally—by using a camera-equipped drone to monitor police checkpoints. There’s Felipe Hemming, a big barrel of a man with a beard who holds the title of chief investigator at Photography Is Not a Crime and acts as a kind of unofficial counsel for cop watchers who get arrested in the Los Angeles area, even though he’s not a trained lawyer. Also present is Dylan Avery, director of the 9/11 conspiracy movie Loose Change, who has just completed a new documentary about police brutality with Salazar, entitled Black and Blue.
Not much is going on tonight. Cop watching is a bit like police work—long periods of intense boredom interrupted by sudden flashes of violent action. We head over to Windward Avenue, just off the boardwalk, to the spot where in May a 29-year-old homeless black man, Brendon Glenn, was shot dead by an LAPD officer after Glenn got into an altercation with a bouncer at the Townhouse tavern. Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck viewed security-camera footage of the killing taken from a nearby restaurant and said he was “very concerned.” He refused, however, to release the video to the public. Salazar smells a cover-up.
“Cops hate cameras,” he says. “A camera to a cop is like a crucifix to a vampire.”
Salazar’s journey from good cop to bad cop to cop watcher began in 1989 when, fresh out of the Air Force, he joined the LAPD. He was 23, hopelessly naive, a handsome Latino kid who grew up in a stable two-parent home in a lily-white suburb. “We were like the Mexican Brady Bunch,” he says, laughing. He had high hopes for his new profession. That’s why he was so perturbed during his training at the Los Angeles Police Academy when an instructor taught him how to “testi-lie”—shading facts, inventing details, shaping the narrative on police reports so the district attorney would pick up the case and run with it. By May 1990 he’d finished his training and begun working in the infamous Rampart Division. He remembers his first day as a rookie patrolling a black neighborhood when an older officer approached and asked him, “So what do you think of these FUNs?” Salazar was puzzled: “What’s FUNs?” “Fucked-up niggers.”
A few months later he watched his fellow officers roll up in a mattress a man who was going through cocaine psychosis after ingesting an eight-ball and then beat him to death with their batons. Salazar was appalled, his idealism sorely tested. The guy was violent and threatening his family, sure, and he needed to be restrained, but he didn’t deserve this.
On September 28, 1991, Salazar, now working in the Wilshire Division, fully surrendered to the darkness. He was driving through the jewelry district in downtown Los Angeles on his way to buy a suit for a friend’s wedding when he spotted a Latino man snatching a gold chain from a woman’s neck. Salazar jumped out of his car and slammed the suspect against a wall. Out of nowhere, six of the suspect’s friends surrounded Salazar and began to beat him with their belts. Salazar drew his backup gun, a snub-nosed .38, but the gang kept coming at him. “Shoot me, shoot me,” one of them kept taunting him. Scared for his life, Salazar backed up into the road and was hit by a passing car that sent him somersaulting into the air.
Lying on the ground with his anklebone sticking through the surface of his skin, Salazar cursed his stupidity, thinking, Why didn’t I shoot those motherfuckers dead? “That’s exactly the moment when I became an angry, pissed-off cop,” says Salazar today.
Four months later, Salazar returned to the job a different man. Although physically healed, he suffered recurring nightmares, replaying the attack in his head. He began to drink heavily, then divorced his wife and started sleeping with so-called “badge bunnies,” or cop groupies. He hung out at the Short Stop, an infamous cop bar on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park that was decorated with police memorabilia. Detectives swapped war stories, and officers from the Rampart Division held “kill parties” there to celebrate every time they shot someone dead.
Then Salazar joined the South Bureau Narcotics Undercover Buy Team. It was a high-stress job, an endless churn of buying dope, busting dope dealers, hitting the street again to buy more dope and bust more dope dealers. Sometimes the team would arrest as many as 40 suspects a day. Once, during a drug buy in San Pedro, a teenager Salazar describes as “a little homey” kicked the side of his car. Salazar snapped and blew his cover when he jumped out of the unmarked vehicle and pulverized the teenager with his police radio.
Still, he was a choirboy compared with some of his colleagues. He didn’t murder anybody or frame anybody for murder, a not uncommon practice back then. He didn’t, as one of his former partners did, rob drug dealers at gunpoint and then sell the product to other drug dealers. Still, things got so bad, he seriously considered taking his own life. “I felt like life was meaningless,” says Salazar. “There were points when I took my service gun and put it in my mouth, thinking about committing suicide. Then I’d look at my kids playing in the yard and say to myself, not today.”
Six of Salazar’s former colleagues did pull the trigger. One was his former instructor at the police academy. After he testified against the cops in the Rodney King beating, he was labeled a rat and ostracized by his fellow officers. He fell into a deep depression and took his own life.
Salazar was shot at by dealers, saw dead bodies with their guts hanging out lying in the street, was forced to smoke crack with a gun pointed to his head to prove he wasn’t a narc, watched the city descend into chaos and nearly burn to the ground during the riots. Only after he quit the LAPD in 1998 to become a private investigator did he find out what was wrong with him. He went to see a shrink, who told him he had post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition common among combat veterans characterized by flashbacks, nightmares and hyperaggressive vigilance.
“The fact of the matter is that right now, at this very second, there’s a police officer out there who is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off,” says Salazar. “He’s angry, pissed off, fighting with the wife, fighting with the kids, and the next citizen he meets might be the next victim.”
Some cop watchers give Salazar a hard time. “Once a pig, always a pig,” they tell him. “Fuck the police.” He doesn’t take it personally. “I get why they’re so angry, because they see cops commit terrible crimes, and they get off again and again,” he says. He just wishes more cop watchers would understand what drives otherwise good cops to crack.
Salazar sees cop watching as an important tool for police accountability. He also knows it’s more a symptom than a long-term solution. “We need to create an environment where good police officers can report their partners without being ostracized,” he says. “We need civilian oversight with subpoena power, because the system will never police itself. We need to rein in prosecutors who put cops on the witness stand, knowing they’re going to lie. We need to disband the police unions that protect bad cops. We need to teach cops how to confront their own racism. We also need to deal with the mental health issues that affect so many cops. And if all else fails, we need to nationalize the police force, make it federal.”
He pauses for a moment.
“We need to do a lot of things.”
Back in Austin, the witching hour has arrived. Hundreds of rowdy revelers stream out of bars on unsteady feet. Mounted police patrols in tight formation trot down the middle of the street, scattering the drunken throng.
Antonio Buehler has spent most of the evening tracking one particular cop, Sergeant Randy Dear, a bald, gum-smacking, comically obese figure who bears a passing resemblance to the character Vic Mackey from the TV show The Shield, plus a hundred pounds. Buehler denies he’s hounding the sergeant. He says he shadows the corpulent cop because he knows from experience that Dear is likely to violate someone’s civil rights.
Just then Buehler spots Dear and a group of other officers lumbering toward a possible crime in progress, a report of a fight outside a bar a couple of blocks away. He and his team chase after them, annoying Dear, who accuses Buehler of slowing the police response time. “If you get in our way again on the way to a scene, we’re going to arrest you,” an irritated Dear warns him.
Minutes later, Dear approaches Buehler again and orders him to move. Buehler argues, claiming he’s not interfering with any investigation since the incident the cops initially responded to is already over. The sergeant is not in the mood for a debate. “I’m asking you one more time to back up,” he says. Buehler turns to leave the area but not quickly enough for the Austin police, three of whom tackle him from behind and wrestle him to the ground. At the nearby processing center, when the cops find out that in the chaos of the arrest, Buehler managed to hand off his iPhone to a colleague, two of them run into the street to track down the cell phone to confiscate it as evidence.
A YouTube video taken by one of Buehler’s team members appears the next day and clearly shows Buehler walking away when the cops jump him and equally plainly shows that Dear is the one who gets in Buehler’s face, not the other way around.
Doesn’t Buehler ever get tired of being arrested? “Everybody should go to jail at least once in their life,” he says a couple of days after his release. “It’s not like in the movies. Most of the people in jail are not bad people. They’re just poor people who don’t have a voice.”
Buehler no longer identifies as a libertarian. In the nearly four years since he was first arrested by Austin cops, his politics have moved leftward. He thinks black lives do matter. White privilege is real. Social class is the great divider. And the job of the police is not to prevent crime but to control marginalized populations.
“Part of the power the police have,” he muses, “is that they promise, ‘We protect you from the mentally ill, we protect you from the homeless, we protect you from the Arabs, we protect you from immigrants and black people. And that means we’re going to have to crush these people. We’re going to have to violate their civil rights. We’re going to have to shoot some of them.’ ” Buehler’s voice sounds a little weary. “In a racist society, you’re always going to have to break some eggs.”