[Originally published in the November/December 2023 PSC magazine.]
How agencies cope with videotaped “First Amendment audits” posted to the internet that may disrupt ECC operations.
By Bart Blackmon and C. Denise Cain
The emergency communications center (ECC) shift started like any other Thursday at the Houston County Sheriff’s Office. Then a coworker took a call from an irate individual complaining about a video they watched on social media. The public safety telecommunicator tried to gather information to create a call for service, but the caller wouldn’t give any information, so she transferred the call to a patrol supervisor. Over the next hour, upset callers from all over the country phoned in regarding a video of an officer interacting with someone videoing a government building. The subject refused to answer questions or give any identifying information. When the officer asked questions, he responded that the First Amendment gives him the right to refuse cooperation. He then posted the video of the incident to his social media platform. When the followers of the social media platform viewed the post of the incident, they called the department to explain that the officer violated the auditor’s First Amendment rights. It is a growing trend across the United States. Individuals video government buildings and employees, and the bloggers or auditors identify themselves as First Amendment Auditors.
A “First Amendment audit” refers to the practice of exercising one’s First Amendment right to video-record in public spaces such as government buildings, public safety buildings and parking lots. Auditors typically post their recordings by uploading to social media to gain followers for monetary purposes. Audits are deemed successful when the person recording is treated as if they did not have a camera. These are rarely posted online. Failed audits involve confrontations in which the auditor is told to stop recording, arrested for failure to identify, given a trespass notice or other adverse action. When actions are taken against the auditor, they post the resulting video online then file complaints and lawsuits against the officer, officials and jurisdiction involved. The First Amendment auditors update followers with other videos following progression of the lawsuit or complaint.
Some telecommunicators have had interactions with auditors beyond phone calls. “We had a situation where a First Amendment auditor video recorded us entering our key codes into the pad to get into the building, and we had to scramble the codes and update access procedures,” said Jessica Lohr, a performance improvement and accreditation supervisor for the Charlottesville-University of Virginia-Albermarle County Emergency Communications Center.
Across the hallway from Public Safety Telecommunicator Ralene Poncelo’s office, the Weld County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Office Records building was targeted.
“For this particular event, we closed the main door between the dispatch center and the front desk and requested our staff to avoid using the two doors that went into the main lobby of the building. The records department received numerous calls from citizens,” Poncelow said.
The video sparked calls “from upset citizens complaining about ‘us’ blocking their civil rights. As a center, we entered a call for service for every one of these complaints or added the calls to an open call for service.” The video is here: youtube.com/ watch?v=BjOQlUKXc5I.
That’s how most telecommunicators experience these videos, as complaint calls pour into the ECC. Houston County was subjected to these auditors multiple times in 2019 and 2020. The first time, call takers were overwhelmed with the volume and by aggressive harassment. We had to learn fast and think outside of the box when it came to dealing with these types of callers. We documented as many of the calls as we could through our CAD for our investigators and learned that most of the callers were not local and only wanted to show support for the video. Our main goal was to not allow these supporters to provoke us into an argumentative confrontation about the videos. We tried to deescalate irate callers and confirm there was no emergency or service needed. We learned to have one person field the calls even if First Amendment audit callers must stay on hold for an extended period. Most important is to make supervisors, information officers and command staff aware of what is going on.
First Amendment auditors call the law enforcement agency to educate and harass the administrative staff, officers in videos, or harass and threaten government officials. The flood of calls can overwhelm an ECC. Callers quote their interpretation of the law and assert that you and the officers do not know what you’re doing and are wasting taxpayer dollars. They threaten ECC personnel with firing or with lawsuits. Their actions tie up resources. Most auditors make money by publishing their video to social media platforms so they can get clicks for views to acquire followers. They also file lawsuits, and most of the time the agency settles out of court for a small amount rather than incurring the expense of lawyer fees. Note that most of the auditors educate themselves enough to file their own lawsuit.
The First Amendment auditors have their own community of YouTubers and internet resources including:
- Rogue nation, BOLT Action News Group. These groups are run by the same blogger.
- James Madison Audits
- Acura Amanda
When our agency was targeted in 2019, our front line telecommunicators had never experienced the volume or level of harassment. We brainstormed with our administrative staff and neighboring agency, which was experiencing similar harassment, to come up with a policy designed to alleviate pressure on our public safety telecommunicators. Callers outside our jurisdiction were asked if they would like to speak to a supervisor. If so, the calls were forwarded to the patrol supervisor on duty. Front line telecommunicators were given a script to help direct other calls to our media officer or advised that if they did not have a local emergency, they could contact their local ECC for assistance. Each call was logged with as much information as we could gather, allowing us to monitor how many times each auditor called and record as much information as possible for investigators. Our focus was to avoid debates between telecommunicators and auditors and maintain professionalism while processing calls for service within our jurisdiction.
If your agency falls prey to First Amendment auditors remember to maintain your professionalism, ensure there is no emergency for the callers and forward the calls to supervisors on duty as needed. ECC personnel should not engage or buy into their disputes, simply verify whether there is an emergency and then route the call according to your ECC policies. Finally, remember that if threats are made toward units or buildings, notify administrative staff and officers immediately. Safety is our number one priority.
Bart Blackmon and C. Denise Cain are Public Safety Telecommunicators with the Houston County Sheriff Office in Dothan, Alabama.