Antonio Buehler

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

One Texas legislator is aiming to limit citizens’ ability to record police officers from close distances, but the bill has generated significant opposition.

Thursday, Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) postponed a public hearing on his bill, HB 2918, which would make it illegal for citizens to record police officers from closer than a 15-foot distance. People openly carrying firearms would be required to stay at least 25 feet away from an officer to record, Villalba said.

Villalba said he did not intend to restrict the rights of citizens with his bill.

“We didn’t set out to do that,” Villalba said. “What we set out to do is create a balance between the officers’ safety and security and the ability for people to keep law enforcement accountable.”

The Austin Police Department supports mandating space between officers and people with recording devices, according to Jason Dusterhoft, APD support bureau assistant chief.

“We are very ‘pro’ people video taping officers,” Dusterhoft said. “It helps us be held accountable. We think it helps citizens see things, but we just want it to be done in a safe manner.”

Antonio Buehler, founder of the Peaceful Streets Project, which works to limit street violence from police officers, said he believes the bill limits citizens’ freedom, and especially impacts those who do not have other means of holding law enforcers accountable.

“[The bill] would take away the one tool they have to try and hold the police accountable,” Buehler said. “Because these people aren’t necessarily able to use the political system, they don’t have support in the courts and in regard to public opinion.”

According to Buehler, it is not always possible to capture detailed recordings from 15 feet away in certain real-life scenarios.

“If you’re in a crowded area where there’s a lot of noise, being 15 feet away may be too far,” Buehler said. “People may be walking in between you. You may not be able to get audio. If it’s dark out, you may not be able to good visual representation of what’s happening.”

Villalba said modern technology means recording devices are able to capture clear audio and visual information, even from a distance. 

The bill makes exceptions to the law for members of the media. Media outlets that have the “direct or indirect objective to disrupt or agitate a peace officer during the officer’s performance of duties” would still be restricted by the law.

“Personally in the age that we live in, the digital age, everyone has the ability and, I think, the right to consider themselves a journalist of some sort,” Michael Johnston, government senior and volunteer with the Peaceful Streets Project, said.

Johnston said there is a common misconception that people recording officers are trying to make an officer’s job more difficult when, in reality, they are trying to monitor police interactions and watch for the safety of officers and civilians. 

“When you introduce more discretion into a police officer’s role in interacting with citizens, you end up creating a mentality of duty of us versus them,” Johnston said. “That police are on one side, and citizens are on another, and there should be some defined separation, in this case 15 feet or 25 feet.”

Austin activist Antonio Buehler filed a lawsuit against several members of the Austin Police Department on Dec. 31 for preventing him from filming police behavior — which, according to Buehler, is a violation of his civil rights.

Buehler was first arrested on Jan. 1, 2012 after he filmed, what he described as, a brutal encounter between a woman and APD officers. Buehler said the officers’ behavior
surprised him.

“As I saw the cops putting [the woman] into a torture move; it shocked the hell out of me,” Buehler said. “I just never imagined I would see that.” 

When one of the officers, Patrick Oborski, noticed him filming, Buehler was arrested and charged with failure to obey a lawful order.

“When I was sitting in jail that night, it was just surreal. … I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Buehler said. “That’s when I realized that my world has changed.”

In April 2013, a grand jury dropped charges against Oborski of tampering with a governmental record and official oppression.

“It is clear that, after reviewing all of the evidence in these cases and applicable statutes, the grand jury found that interfering with officers during the course of their duties is, in fact, a crime,” Police Chief Art Acevedo said in a statement.

While filming police actions is generally lawful, Acevedo said failure to obey a lawful order and resisting arrest are not tolerated,

Since his first arrest, Buehler has been detained multiple times, once for disorderly conduct and a second time for failure to obey a lawful order. Buehler said APD’s failure to reprimand the officers who arrested him is part of why he’s suing the department.

“There is absolutely no accountability for police who commit a crime,” Buehler said. “This is a problem that certainly predates my incident.”

Buehler said the Office of the Police Monitor, which exists to handle cases of alleged violations of APD policy, along with APD’s Internal Affairs department, are not effective at holding APD officers accountable.

Biology freshman Aleyda Lopez said she thinks videotapes can serve as evidence in cases of police cruelty.

“The cops should not be afraid of being filmed, because if they act in a decent way they should have nothing to be afraid of,” Lopez said. “[Buehler] has been arrested because the cops do not want their corrupt behavior to be exposed.”

Soon after his first arrest, Buehler founded the Peaceful Streets Project, a nonpartisan police-accountability organization that organizes groups of citizens to film law enforcement officers.

Acevedo said APD strongly supports the right of members of the public to record, photograph or film APD officers.

“Evidence of the department’s support of this fundamental right can be found on the [Internet], which is replete with instances of the public lawfully recording the activities of departmental personnel,” Acevedo said.

In addition to APD, Buehler has also filed suit against the City of Austin, the police chief and several officers.

“We strongly believe that Mr. Buehler’s lawsuit is without merit and look forward to refuting his claims in court,” Acevedo said.

Peaceful Streets Project member Heather Kindrick discusses the protest against Police Chief Art Acevedo winning the 2012 IID Peace Award with a passerby. 

Photo Credit: Becca Gamache | Daily Texan Staff

Art Acevedo, chief of the Austin Police Department, was met with praise and protest Sunday night as he received an award for his efforts to make the city more peaceful.

The Institute for Interfaith Dialogue, a national nonprofit organization established after 9/11 to promote peace, hosted their Annual Friendship and Dialogue Dinner Sunday night. Along with audience and expert panelist discussions on peace, the event featured a ceremony to give Acevedo the organization’s annual Peace Award.

Güner Arslan, co-founder of the organization, said Acevedo was chosen for the award because of his efforts to promote unity in the Austin area.

“He reached out to our community, the Muslim, the Turkish community,” Arslan said. “His doors are always open whenever we need something. We have had a few scares in the past few years where we thought we needed police protection and just a phone call to him or an email to him was enough to get his attention.”

Outside the Hilton hotel in downtown Austin, protestors from the Peaceful Streets Project, an Austin-based grassroots organization that promotes police accountability, picketed in protest of Acevedo receiving the award. Several members of Peaceful Streets also attended the dinner in protest.

Antonio Buehler, founder of the project, said its members wanted to send a message to Acevedo.

“We’re just being present, letting him know that we plan to hold him accountable,” Buehler said.

Peaceful Streets Project member Kit O’Connell said roughy 25 people came out to protest the event. He said their criticisms include Acevedo’s “quickness” in defending animal and human deaths caused by Austin police officers in recent years, the recently enacted “Public Order Initiative,” which has led to the ticketing and arrest of hundreds of homeless people throughout the city and Austin police infiltration of the Occupy movement earlier this year.

“Acevedo turns a blind eye to police violence and police brutality and now he is being given a peace award,” O’Connell said.

Acevedo said his efforts over the past five years have led to greater public trust in the police department, promoting peace in the process.

“I believe in transparency, and I believe in engagement,” Acevedo said. “I really feel that a leader that is known to the community builds trust.”

Arslan said, overall, he thought the protesters made a notable impact on the event, but in a positive way.

“That’s one of the goals of the institute, to bring together people that generally don’t come together,” Arslan said. “We got them talking.”

Police officers monitoring the West Campus area now have an extra set of eyes on them in an effort to expose enforcement officials who violate the law on the job.

Members of the Peaceful Streets Project, an Austin-based civil and legal rights advocacy organization, expanded their efforts into West Campus Thursday night with their first area “cop watch.” During these watches, organization members monitor law enforcement officials by filming them in action, often at traffic stops. The organizatiom will be monitoring the West Campus area on a bi-weekly basis.

The Peaceful Streets Project also accepts complaints from those who feel they have been victimized by the police and post those complaints online. They hold informational sessions to better educate the public of their legal rights as well. Antonio Buehler, Peaceful Streets Project founder, said the organization chose to expand its efforts into West Campus because Austin Police Department officer Gary Griffin was appointed district representative for the West Campus area this summer, meaning he oversees police initiatives there. Griffin was fired from the Austin Police Department in 2007 for beating up a mentally ill homeless man at a bus stop earlier that year. He was later rehired after an investigation into the beating.

Before the first West Campus cop watch, the organization held a training session in conjunction with Libertarian Longhorns to explain legal rights people should be aware of when dealing with police.

Buehler was arrested three times this year while filming police and charged with spitting on an officer in the first case and interfering with public duty after that. He has denied the allegations against him and has not yet stood trial on the charges. Buehler said all arrests were made out of retaliation and claims multiple witnesses and video recordings support his stance.

Current APD policy allows members of the general public to film police in any public place unless such recording interferes with police activity.

At the informational session, New York licensed attorney Kaja Tretjak said a person’s rights differ depending on what type of interaction they are having with a law enforcement official. She said there are three ways to classify an interaction: conversation, detention and arrest. For example, at the detention stage, a person is not under arrest but is not free to leave.

Tretjak also explained the best way to handle a police encounter at a house party.

“Try to avoid having the cops called in the first place,” Tretjak said. “Keep people on the property, try to be private and keep the noise level to a minimum.”

Jose Nino, president of Libertarian Longhorns, said his organization felt it was important to host the event for several reasons.

“It is a great educational opportunity for UT students to learn about the rights they have and how to flex them ...” he said. “It’s all about empowerment and letting people know that they have the power to do things to create a safer community around them.”

Printed on Monday, October 29, 2012 as: Project watches police in West Campus area

Antonio Buehler walks out of Travis County jail after being released on bond Friday afternoon. This is Buehler’s third arrest for filming police officers.

Photo Credit: Nathan Goldsmith | Daily Texan Staff

Already arrested twice this year for filming police, Antonio Buehler, 35, received his third arrest early Friday, this time with a UT student.

Buehler and Sarah Dickerson, an art history graduate student, were both arrested near the 1300 block of West Sixth Street around 1:30 a.m. Friday. They were charged with interfering with public duty, a class B misdemeanor punishable with a fine of up to $2,000 and/or up to 180 days in jail, police said. Jail records show that both Buehler and Dickerson were released on bond later that day. Police said that filming police officers is legal, but if an officer believes that interference has begun, he or she may arrest the person filming on the spot, give them a verbal warning or pursue other approved action. 

Buehler and Dickerson were filming Austin police officers conducting a field sobriety test at a DWI stop on West Sixth Street on Friday when an officer involved in the test asked them to back away.

Buehler said he and Dickerson backed away and then followed several other orders given by a different officer, Sergeant Adam Johnson, but despite their attempts to comply with his instructions, they were still arrested.

“We were probably 35 yards away, like over 100 feet away, when he finally arrested us for interfering,” Buehler said. “Officer Johnson said, ‘You have two choices: leave now or go over there,’ and I said, ‘OK, we are leaving,’ and he arrested me.”

Dickerson said she began filming Buehler’s arrest and was then arrested herself.

Buehler said Johnson handed him and Dickerson off to Officer Austin Holmes, who the police consider the arresting officer in both cases.

Buehler and Dickerson said they were concerned about following one of Johnson’s orders because it did not make sense to them.

“Johnson asked us to walk right by the suspect and the arresting officer,” Buehler said. “It was a completely illogical and irrational order.”

Buehler said he thought the order might be a trap, so he asked Johnson if he and Dickerson could move further away instead. Johnson eventually offered them the two options: leave or move to the desired location. 

Buehler said the arrest should never have occurred, as he and Dickerson complied with the orders and were leaving as instructed.

“We were exercising our First Amendment rights,” Buehler said. 

Lisa Cortinas, Austin Police Department spokesperson, said Dickerson and Buehler were arrested because they failed to follow a police order. 

“They were asked to move to the other side of the officer where other witnesses were and they refused,” Cortinas said. 

Buehler was first arrested for filming an APD officer in January and has since founded an organization called Peaceful Streets Project. Buehler said his organization works to promote police accountability and, in turn, create a safer environment for the general public. The organization’s initiatives include campaigns to spread awareness about police corruption and on-foot surveillance of police officers by the group’s members. 

Buehler said it is important to keep police accountable because an arrest can have a devastating impact on an individual’s life, something he now knows from experience. 

“It cost me my reputation,” he said. “Every time someone Googles my name, they see mugshots of me online.”

Buehler said Peaceful Streets Project will be opening several chapters across the country within the next two months. 

“We are going to keep going,” he said. “[The police] think that they can intimidate us by arresting us. But every single time they do this, all they do is get people more pissed off, and more people join the cause.”

Printed on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 as: Two arrested in filming, charged with interference

Antonio Buehler speaks with supporters after his release from Travis County jail Friday afternoon. Buehler was arrested near the 1300 block of West Sixth Street at approximately 1:30 a.m. Friday morning.

Photo Credit: Nathan Goldsmith | Daily Texan Staff

Police said a UT art history graduate student and a 35-year-old man were arrested while filming Austin Police Department officers Friday.

Antonio Buehler and Sarah Dickerson were both arrested around 1:30 a.m. near the 1300 block of West Sixth Street and charged with interfering with public duty — a class B misdemeanor punishable with a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail, according to police. Both Buehler and Dickerson were released on bond later that day.

Buehler and Dickerson were filming Austin police officers conducting a field sobriety test at a driving-while-intoxicated stop on West Sixth Street, when an officer involved in the stop asked them to back away.

It is not illegal to film police officers in the city of Austin unless it begins to interfere with a police investigation, police said.

Police said Buelher and Dickerson failed to follow a police order to move to a specific location while filming, causing their arrest. Buehler and Dickerson said they followed orders and were arrested anyway.

Since Buehler’s first arrest in January, he has founded the Peaceful Streets Project, a grassroots organization that works to increase police accountability. The coalition films officers and works to better educate the community about their legal rights.