‘First Amend­ment au­di­tors’ seek to pro­voke, ex­perts say

The Wichita Eagle (Sunday) - - News - BY JUDY L. THOMAS

The sun had long set when the two men trudged up to the jus­tice cen­ter in Shawnee and peered in­side. They pulled open the door and en­tered the modern brick build­ing that houses the po­lice de­part­ment and city of­fices, film­ing the scene with their cell­phones.

No one ap­proached them as they walked around, film­ing var­i­ous items in the build­ing.

Then Pa­trick Roth turned the cam­era on his co­hort, Tim Harper, who was wear­ing an or­ange shirt and a “Make Amer­ica Great Again” ball cap and toted a gun in a hol­ster on his right hip.

“Guys, he’s got four mags,” Roth said on the video he later posted on his YouTube chan­nel, News Now Pa­trick, zoom­ing in on the mag­a­zines that hold ex­tra rounds of am­mu­ni­tion. “We’re in a po­lice de­part­ment. He’s open car­ry­ing.”

“Seventy-six rounds,” Harper said of his mag­a­zine ca­pac­ity.

The two con­tin­ued film­ing in the build­ing for nearly 4 min­utes be­fore head­ing to the ad­ja­cent fire sta­tion to shoot more video.

The episode ended peace­fully. That isn’t al­ways the case.

Armed with cell­phones, cam­eras and some­times hand­guns, these self­de­scribed “First Amend­ment au­di­tors” traipse through gov­ern­ment build­ings, roam the halls of po­lice de­part­ments and wan­der around air­ports and nat­u­ral gas plants across the coun­try.

Usu­ally re­fus­ing to iden­tify them­selves, they zoom in on of­fi­cers and em­ploy­ees, call­ing them by name and of­ten mak­ing them vis­i­bly un­com­fort­able — some even fright­ened. Oc­ca­sion­ally — and es­pe­cially if the en­coun­ters be­come con­fronta­tional — they stream their videos live, prompt­ing their view­ers to call the po­lice de­part­ments and other of­fices to protest what they say is wrong­ful treat­ment of the “au­di­tors.” The videos are then posted on YouTube, where they re­ceive thou­sands of views and elicit a bar­rage of com­ments.

The au­dits have ramped up in the past year, with Roth fo­cus­ing ex­ten­sively in re­cent months on the Kansas City area and in other Kansas and Mis­souri towns. He has filmed at po­lice sta­tions and gov­ern­ment build­ings in Kansas City, Lib­erty, Ray­town, Parkville, In­de­pen­dence, Shawnee and Over­land Park, among oth­ers.

The tar­gets of his au­dits in­clude not only law en­force­ment cen­ters and gov­ern­ment of­fices but oil re­finer­ies, county jails and the Fed­eral Trans­fer Cen­ter in Ok­la­homa City, a large cor­rec­tional fa­cil­ity.

Roth and oth­ers like him say they’re sim­ply au­dit­ing their pub­lic ser­vants to see how they in­ter­act with those they are sup­posed to be serv­ing. Then, the so-called au­di­tors say, they “ed­u­cate” those pub­lic em­ploy­ees they deem to have vi­o­lated their con­sti­tu­tional rights.

“The in­tent is never to scare any­body,” Roth told The Star. “The in­tent is never to freak any­body out. I’m a rea­son­able guy. I’m not rad­i­cal, I’m not crazy. All that I wish to do is go in these build­ings un­mo­lested and film.”

But crit­ics, in­clud­ing do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism ex­perts, say the tac­tics are in­tim­i­dat­ing — some­times down­right scary — and that the “au­di­tors” seem in­tent on in­cit­ing author­i­ties. And they fear that it’s just a mat­ter of time be­fore one of the en­coun­ters turns vi­o­lent.

“I am def­i­nitely con­cerned,” said Bob Paud­ert, for­mer po­lice chief of West Mem­phis, Ark., whose son and an­other of­fi­cer were gunned down by anti-gov­ern­ment sov­er­eign cit­i­zens dur­ing a traf­fic stop in 2010. “These are the same tac­tics the sov­er­eign cit­i­zens use. The lan­guage they use, go­ing into city of­fice build­ings, re­fus­ing to give their names but de­mand­ing you give yours, video­tap­ing ev­ery­body.

“They’re ha­rass­ing city em­ploy­ees and gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, and they’ve got no le­git­i­mate rea­son for be­ing there other than just to film. They’re try­ing to pro­voke these peo­ple to make an ar­rest or hit them or what­ever. The prob­lem is, the em­ploy­ees don’t know how to han­dle it. They’re not sure what to do.”

Sov­er­eign cit­i­zens believe the gov­ern­ment is cor­rupt and out of con­trol; there­fore, they do not rec­og­nize lo­cal, state or fed­eral au­thor­ity or tax sys­tems. Not all are vi­o­lent, but in re­cent years they have come to be con­sid­ered a top do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism threat by the FBI and other gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

Paud­ert, who is now po­lice chief in Sey­mour, Mo., trains law en­force­ment of­fi­cers around the coun­try on how to com­bat ter­ror­ism. He said he learned about the “First Amend­ment au­di­tors” at a re­cent risk man­age­ment sem­i­nar for mu­nic­i­pal

Aem­ploy­ees.

“The guy run­ning it showed a clip of them and said the best way to han­dle them is to in­vite them in and say, ‘Take all the pic­tures you want to. You want some cof­fee? We’ll show you where City Hall meets,’” Paud­ert said.

“At break time, I said, ‘Look, son, I don’t think you ought to be do­ing that.’ I said, ‘Are these peo­ple like sov­er­eign cit­i­zens?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ I said, ‘Sov­er­eign cit­i­zens are do­mes­tic ter­ror­ists. You don’t in­vite them in there. You don’t know if they’re armed or not.

They could take a hostage and kill peo­ple.’”

Roth adamantly de­nies that he’s a sov­er­eign cit­i­zen.

“The First Amend­ment au­dit­ing com­mu­nity, we are in no way as­so­ci­ated or af­fil­i­ated with sov­er­eign cit­i­zens,” he said. “I believe in gov­ern­ment. I like cops, I re­ally do. I just don’t like bad ones.”

His videos, how­ever, show that he and Harper some­times con­duct au­dits with a man who goes by the name James Free­man, a well-known fig­ure in the au­dit­ing com­mu­nity who also posts his videos on YouTube.

And in his in­ter­view with The Star, Roth de­scribed Free­man as a sov­er­eign cit­i­zen and said Free­man is not his real name.

“The rea­son he goes by Free­man, he tries to go as a sov­er­eign,” Roth said. “He’s more anti-gov­ern­ment, more ag­gres­sive style. And I don’t agree with that, but that’s just his way of do­ing things. He’s not the kind of guy that he’s just gonna shoot up a bunch of cops. He’s not gonna do that. But he thinks it per­suades the pub­lic’s opin­ion and helps him grow.”

Court records show that both Roth and Harper have a his­tory with the le­gal sys­tem.

In July 2016, an Ok­la­homa judge granted Roth’s un­cle an emer­gency or­der of pro­tec­tion against Roth, find­ing that it was nec­es­sary “to pro­tect the pe­ti­tioner from im­me­di­ate and present dan­ger of do­mes­tic abuse, stalk­ing or ha­rass­ment.” The or­der was in place for six months.

And in Novem­ber 2016, Roth pleaded no con­test in Harper County, Okla., to a charge of break­ing and en­ter­ing. He was sen­tenced to one year in jail, with all but five days sus­pended, and one year of pro­ba­tion.

Roth told The Star his un­cle was con­fused when he re­quested the pro­tec­tive or­der and that the break­ing and en­ter­ing case was filed by a friend’s par­ents who didn’t want Roth at their house.

Harper has been the sub­ject of mul­ti­ple pro­tec­tive orders in Ok­la­homa, ac­cused of threat­en­ing peo­ple with a ri­fle and at­tempt­ing to run his exwife off the road with his truck. And in a 1999 case, he was ac­cused of threat­en­ing to chop off his for­mer step­daugh­ter’s head with an ax, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Fron­tier, an on­line in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism site.

The court records show that no crim­i­nal con­vic­tions re­sulted from any of the cases. Harper de­nied ever threat­en­ing any­one.

Roth ac­knowl­edged that the au­dit­ing tac­tics can come across as strange — even un­nerv­ing — but in­sists the au­di­tors are not dan­ger­ous.

“The whole point of why we do it at po­lice sta­tions and city halls and court­houses and city build­ings is be­cause of the First Amend­ment, free­dom of the press,” he said. “They need to un­der­stand that re­gard­less if it is a lit­tle odd, that it’s OK. It’s not il­le­gal. Now I do agree, it is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. But that’s the point. It’s to be a lit­tle dif­fer­ent and see what they do.”

Roth said law en­force­ment of­fi­cers have to learn to keep their emo­tions in check.

“Peo­ple are go­ing to say things that upset you,” he said. “You have to be able to turn the other cheek.”

Then why make peo­ple even more un­easy by re­fus­ing to give their names?

“I get asked that by at­tor­neys, lawyers, all the time: if you just gave your ID, you would’ve been fine,” Roth said. “But again, the point be­hind what we’re do­ing is, re­gard­less if it’s sus­pi­cious, re­gard­less if it’s odd or dif­fer­ent, it’s be­cause we’re ex­er­cis­ing our free­doms. We do it be­cause we sim­ply don’t have to give it.”

Roth, of Buf­falo, Okla., turned 21 in Novem­ber and says he’s been con­duct­ing au­dits for four years. He es­ti­mates he’s done about 600 and posted videos on­line of 400 or so.

Roth said he some­times gets emails from peo­ple sug­gest­ing that he check out a spe­cific agency. But the de­ci­sion to come to Kansas and Mis­souri, he said, “was just ran­dom.”

He said he’s been ar­rested twice when con­duct­ing his au­dits.

Once was in En­nis, Texas, he said, but charges were not filed. The other was in Ok­la­homa in De­cem­ber, af­ter Roth tan­gled with a Beaver County sher­iff’s deputy while film­ing a nat­u­ral gas com­pres­sor sta­tion. The deputy told Roth he was film­ing on pri­vate prop­erty and asked for his ID. Roth re­fused, ar­gu­ing that he was on the pub­lic ease­ment and wasn’t do­ing any­thing wrong.

Roth said he was ar­rested for re­fus­ing to give his iden­tity but was later charged with ob­struct­ing an of­fi­cer. At a court hear­ing Wed­nes­day in Beaver, the judge gave him an ad­di­tional 30 days to re­spond.

Some law en­force­ment agen­cies con­tacted by The Star didn’t want to dis­cuss the First Amend­ment au­dits.

“They came, and we dealt with it,” said a spokesman for the Shawnee Po­lice De­part­ment. “And the way we han­dled it is kind of on YouTube.”

Roth’s YouTube video of that Novem­ber in­ci­dent shows two of­fi­cers ap­proach­ing the men out­side the sta­tion af­ter they roamed around in­side. One of­fi­cer told them that the law did in­deed al­low them to open carry in the po­lice sta­tion lobby. When Harper and Roth asked the of­fi­cers for their names, they com­plied, and they also pro­vided their badge num­bers.

Over­land Park po­lice en­coun­tered Roth in early Novem­ber when he and Harper went into the po­lice sta­tion and be­gan film­ing at dusk. Af­ter walk­ing around briefly — Harper with a hand­gun in a hol­ster and film­ing — they went out­side, where they spoke to two of­fi­cers.

“I know a lot of this is com­ing in and mak­ing a dis­play of your le­gal rights, and I can ap­pre­ci­ate that,” one of­fi­cer said.

Roth told the of­fi­cers they didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate that po­lice had just has­sled some peo­ple who had ac­com­pa­nied them to Kansas. The of­fi­cer replied that they were check­ing the ve­hi­cle be­cause it was parked in a re­mote area of a nearby hos­pi­tal park­ing lot.

Roth be­came ag­i­tated: “I’m not an id­iot,” he said. “You guys know they are with us. I’m hot and upset be­cause you’re an id­iot.”

When the of­fi­cers left, a woman who had been in the ve­hi­cle told Roth that po­lice had asked for her driver’s li­cense but she’d re­fused to give it to them. She said they did not search the van or open the door.

Over­land Park po­lice spokesman John Lacy told The Star that the of­fi­cers han­dled the sit­u­a­tion pro­fes­sion­ally.

“What they do is come in with an open carry, and they want an of­fi­cer to en­gage them about that firearm, which we will not do, be­cause you can open carry in Over­land Park,” Lacy said. “We usu­ally know when they’re in town. But at the same time, even if we didn’t know they were in town, we’re still go­ing to treat them with re­spect and we’re go­ing to fol­low our state laws.”

Lacy said Roth and Harper were try­ing to pro­voke the of­fi­cers “so they can have it on cam­era and ex­pose us on so­cial me­dia.”

But that didn’t hap­pen, he said.

“Mat­ter of fact, the chief of po­lice gave the two sergeants who they en­coun­tered com­pli­ments be­cause of the way they han­dled them, even though these two were very rude to­ward our of­fi­cers,” Lacy said. “They re­ceived a let­ter of com­men­da­tion for it.”

Kansas City po­lice got to meet Roth and Harper as well.

On Oct. 27, the two vis­ited the Na­tional Nu­clear Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion Kansas City Plant op­er­ated by Honey­well FM&T at the site of the for­mer Richard­sGe­baur Air­port in south Kansas City.

As they stood near a No Tres­pass­ing sign and filmed, a se­cu­rity guard ap­proached and asked what they were do­ing.

“We’re out here tak­ing pic­tures.”

“Of what?”

“Any­thing I can see.” The guard walked to­ward Roth.

“Don’t touch the cam­era,” Roth said, his voice ris­ing. “Don’t touch me. Are you threat­en­ing me, sir? I will de­fend my­self. Don’t walk up to me ag­gres­sive-like.”

The guard asked Roth for his name. Roth re­fused to give it to him. Then the guard ra­dioed for some­one to call Kansas City po­lice.

Three of­fi­cers showed up and told them they weren’t to go on the prop­erty. Harper said they didn’t in­tend to. The men still re­fused to give their names, and the of­fi­cers soon left with­out any in­ci­dent.

Some who viewed

Roth’s video of the event en­cour­aged him to file an as­sault or bat­tery charge against the se­cu­rity guard for try­ing to push his cam­era away. Oth­ers were fu­ri­ous and said Roth was try­ing to pro­voke the of­fi­cer.

“While I un­der­stand that you’re ex­er­cis­ing your con­sti­tu­tional rights, you’re do­ing it in the wrong way,” wrote Ni­cholas Bat­tles in an on­line com­ment. “It’s in­di­vid­u­als like you who give Democrats power to re­strict our 2nd amend­ment right. Walk­ing up to, while car­ry­ing, and record­ing a se­cured fed­eral fa­cil­ity, nu­clear fa­cil­ity, no less, is just plain stupid. I’m a repub­li­can, a vet­eran, and I think what you two did was reck­less and stupid. It looks like you’re in­ten­tion­ally try­ing to start s---. ”

Kansas City po­lice spokesman Lionel Colon did not ad­dress a ques­tion about that spe­cific in­ci­dent but said po­lice are aware of the au­di­tors.

“KCPD pa­trol ve­hi­cles are equipped with au­dio and video record­ing sys­tems,” Colon said. “We are also ac­cus­tomed to on­look­ers record­ing us with their cell­phones. As a re­sult, we of­ten con­duct our du­ties un­der the as­sump­tion we are al­ways be­ing recorded.”

Roth filmed his visit to City Hall in Enid, Okla., on Nov. 14.

“I’m just au­dit­ing my pub­lic ser­vants,” he said as he me­an­dered through the build­ing. He walked into the city code ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fice.

“Just tour­ing the city of Enid, … tak­ing a lit­tle peek around,” he told a city code of­fi­cial.

She asked where he was from. He said Texas. She looked con­cerned. “I think what makes me a lit­tle bit un­com­fort­able is there’s just a lot of strange things that hap­pen in the world out there right now,” she said.

“And I’m not a ter­ror­ist,” Roth replied.

“There’s no ter­ror­ism go­ing on, I prom­ise.”

The city of­fi­cial was now vis­i­bly scared: “I don’t know that I feel par­tic­u­larly safe right now.”

“You don’t feel safe?” Roth said, still film­ing her. “Oh, here, I’ll get up. I’ll leave. Oh, come on now, An­gela, it’s fine. Ev­ery­thing’s OK.”

She stood up and looked around ner­vously.

“An­gela, re­lax. Just re­lax. I’m just show­ing you, I don’t have any weapons. I’m just let­ting you know. Ev­ery­thing’s fine, ev­ery­thing’s OK. I don’t have a bomb strapped to me or noth­ing; it’s just my GoPro.”

A man in her of­fice called po­lice. When an of­fi­cer ar­rived, Roth re­fused to give his name.

“They called me be­cause you’re a sus­pi­cious per­son in­side the build­ing here. … You’re mak­ing them feel un­easy,” the of­fi­cer said, ask­ing Roth for his name.

“I just don’t feel safe giv­ing it. … How do I know you’re not go­ing to plan an at­tack on my home?” Roth said.

The of­fi­cer looked con­fused: “Ex­cuse me? Why would I plan an at­tack on your home?”

“I don’t want to give my in­for­ma­tion,” Roth said. “It’s un­safe nowa­days. Do you know ev­ery­thing go­ing on in the world, with ter­ror­ism and ev­ery­thing?”

Judy L Thomas: 816-234-4334, @judylthomas

YouTube

A screen grab from a News Now Pa­trick YouTube video shows a “First Amend­ment au­di­tor” car­ry­ing a sidearm while record­ing video at the Shawnee Po­lice De­part­ment.

YouTube

A screen grab from one of “First Amend­ment au­di­tor” James Free­man’s YouTube videos shows an en­counter with some­one he iden­ti­fies as the po­lice chief of Lo­gan, Utah.

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