After an Arizona police cruiser stopped a sedan with expired tags on a recent night, a black-masked man in an SUV rushed over to record the encounter. As a woman in the passenger seat handed her identification to a police officer, Christopher Ruff jumped in to advise her on her constitutional rights, holding up a camera to record the scene. “Did he make it seem like you had to, or did he just ask?” Ruff asked her. “In the future, you don’t got to tell them anything about who you are.” A sergeant approached, telling Ruff to get back and threatening him with arrest. That night, Ruff, 33, recorded a half-dozen interactions between police and civilians, some of which he posted on YouTube. It was a typical Friday for Ruff, part of his personal crusade to stop what he sees as overstepping, oath-breaking law enforcement. His encounters with police have been viewed more than 65 million times, the Washington Post reports. The online movement known as cop-watching or First Amendment auditing has swelled in popularity as Americans examine their relationship with policing after George Floyd’s murder. Cop-watchers and auditors say they’re forcing police and government agencies to train workers to respect First Amendment rights and are willing to risk arrest in the process. A few are cashing in. The most popular auditing channels can generate more than $150,000 a month through ads and subscriptions on YouTube, Facebook and TikTok. Individual auditors can earn tens of thousands a month.
Several states have passed laws or taken steps to limit opportunities to record police interactions, restrictions that have affected reporting by news organizations. Some law enforcement leaders accuse cop-watchers of selectively editing videos, misinforming citizens, inspiring vitriol toward police, and escalating tensions during police interactions with civilians. Auditor videos have led to disciplinary actions for hundreds of officers, and a handful of police have lost their jobs. The interactions and resulting legal fights have found their way to a federal appeals court, which affirmed the right of civilians to film police as a result of a lawsuit brought by a Texas-based auditor. Arizona has become a hot spot for auditing and cop-watching. Some officers across Phoenix’s southeast suburbs have begun using yellow crime scene tape to set perimeters around traffic stops when bystanders with cameras arrive. Arizona is one of at least six states that have tried to enact laws to create more distance between police and the public, with mixed results. A coalition of media companies and free press advocates successfully challenged a law that made it illegal in Arizona for bystanders to record police within an eight-foot buffer zone.