Traffic stops lead to fraught encounters with American law enforcement, which is why this stop between a LA County Sheriff and a local cop watcher is so illustrative of the power of turning the camera around on police. In this episode of the Police Accountability Report, we break down what happened and explore how the techniques used by cop watchers can actually prevent police from making questionable arrests.
Post-Production: Adam Coley
Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always make clear, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And to do so, we’re going to start today by showing a video of a police encounter after a Los Angeles man was pulled over for a red light infraction. But how this story unfolds is so unusual and so outside the norm for police behavior, we’re going to break it down in detail, and why we think it might be an indicator of how cop watchers are more important than ever.
But before I get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at [email protected] and we might be able to investigate for you. And of course you can always message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook and Twitter, and please like, share, and comment on our videos. It really does help us. And if you can, hit the Patreon donate button pinned in the comment below, because we do have some special goodies for our PAR family. Okay, now we’ve gotten all that out of the way.
Now, if there is one maxim that has been repeated by all cop watchers we have interviewed on our show, it is a rule that can be expressed in three simple words: record, record, record. It’s a concept that reporting has certainly confirmed can be quite effective at documenting police overreach. Unfortunately for some of the people who have used it, the end result has been a little less encouraging. Meaning, even when cops are caught on camera, they usually don’t have a problem executing a brutal and sometimes even shocking arrest. Let’s remember this scene when First Amendment auditor, David Bourne, was filming police at an accident in Texas. Even though he was clearly exercising his First Amendment rights, cops didn’t have a problem arresting him for reasons that still remain unclear. Let’s watch.
David Bourne: I think it was personal. They wanted to retaliate against me. I think for a good portion of it, Rockwell PD behaves for the most part. They’re not near as bad as Dallas or Fort Worth or Baltimore or some of the bigger cities, but they still have bad cops in their department.
Taya Graham: That’s why when we first watched the video made by Los Angeles resident Tracy McKinley, known as Sip CanSeeAHigherPower, we were blown away to say the least. Not because cops pulled the man over as seen here for a fairly minor reason and then escalated the encounter, that is standard fare for American policing. No, it’s what happened after McKinley turned the tables on the police and then documented the stop with his camera, which led to one of the most unusual police engagements we’ve seen in quite some time. The story started last month when McKinley was driving in Los Angeles with his family, when a Los Angeles county sheriff pulled him over for allegedly running a red light. But the car stop quickly took a strange twist as he decided, not just to record the police, but also, for a lack of a better term, take charge of the situation. Let’s watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Police Officer: Sir, can I please see your driver’s license?
Tracy McKinley: One second.
Police Officer: Sir, can I please see your driver’s license?
Tracy McKinley: Getting out the driver’s license? That’s it. So she won’t being all extra for nothing. You know what I’m talking about? It doesn’t even have to be all this aggressive type shit. Oh, this a ticket, it doesn’t mean to have to be that frustrated. [crosstalk] I’m grown, I can do what I do.
Police Officer: I’m coming to you professionally.
Tracy McKinley: You don’t tell me what the fuck to do, lady, you’re knocking on my window. You’re knocking on my window, you’re pissing me off by [tapping] doing some shit like that.
Police Officer: I can’t see in the back of your window.
Tracy McKinley: You can see paint.
Passenger: [inaudible] we’ll be going to jail.
Police Officer: I can’t see what’s back there.
Tracy McKinley: So, what?
Police Officer: What do you mean, so what?
Tracy McKinley: You can’t see back there.
Police Officer: We can’t.
Tracy McKinley: So? That’s what I’m talking about.
Police Officer: That’s why I asked you to roll down your window.
Tracy McKinley: Ain’t nobody don’t mean no harm.
Police Officer: Can I see your driver’s license?
Tracy McKinley: There you go.
Police Officer: Presented to me in my hands, please.
Tracy McKinley: No, I’m not presenting you shit, I’m going to display it to you. Anything else you need?
Police Officer: Do you have insurance?
Tracy McKinley: Yes, I do.
Police Officer: Let me get your insurance card and your registration please.
Tracy McKinley: Write the ticket. Go ahead. I ain’t giving you shit. I can display it to you. If you got a problem with it, let me know.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Now, not only does McKinley tell police he’s not going to get out of the vehicle, but he actually declines another routine order in a way that practically turns comical. Watch what happens when the sheriff tries to take his license, and let’s listen to him explain what he was thinking when he prevented the officer from grabbing it.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Tracy McKinley: [laughs] Don’t scare me like that. You just fucking scared me. [crosstalk] So? Don’t do… [laughs] Stop, man.
Police Officer: Sir, stop reaching for stuff.
Tracy McKinley: I’m trying to get you that motherfucking license. Fuck out of here, lady.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: But that’s not where this story ends. Because as we’ve seen in other cases, police begin what we’re going to call their standard escalation tactics. Or put simply, ordering him to step out of the vehicle. Usually is a prelude to arrest, but McKinley was not having it. Not at all. In fact, as the officer orders him out of the car, he simply refuses. Let’s take a look.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Tracy McKinley: It’s not fake, it’s not fake.
Police Officer: I don’t know that if you don’t present it to me.
Tracy McKinley: Hey, this lady says my driver license is fake. Stop knocking on my motherfucking window. All right. I’ll step out. Thank you.
Police Officer: Unlock the door.
Tracy McKinley: Hey, back up some.
Police Officer: No.
Tracy McKinley: I ain’t getting out then.
Police Officer: Okay.
Tracy McKinley: Hey, she won’t let me get her my license.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: And so, as you can see, that’s when things turn truly bizarre, at least in the parlance of American law enforcement. That is, instead of dragging him from the car, something unusual happens. It seems like McKinley is a cop watcher and he somewhat has the officer off balance. Let’s watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Tracy McKinley: I displayed my license to her. I displayed it to her. Was she… Listen, listen to me, listen to me right quick.
Police Sergeant: Right now you’re giving us a hard time.
Tracy McKinley: Of course.
Police Sergeant: And what’s going to happen is you are obstructing our dudes.
Tracy McKinley: Obstruction is physical, repeat that.
Police Sergeant: You don’t know.
Tracy McKinley: Yes I do. I’m telling you it’s physical when you obstruct.
Passenger: [Baby crying] Tracy.
Tracy McKinley: Fuck out of here.
Police Officer: Hand it to my Sergeant.
Tracy McKinley: I ain’t giving it to him.
Police Officer: Hand it to my Sergeant.
Police Sergeant: Give it to me. Just give it to me.
Tracy McKinley: Y’all just pulled the gun out on me.
Police Sergeant: I can’t read that.
Tracy McKinley: Yes, you can.
Police Sergeant: I cannot read that.
Tracy McKinley: I’m sorry. You can, I don’t got to ask you no shit like that, nigga. What the fuck wrong with you?
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: So what exactly is going on here? Are we seeing the first law of Cop Watching: record, record, record, actually succeeding? Did the tactic of putting the officer on camera from the start turn the often skewed tables on the sheriff, looking for the arrest at? And was the legal maneuvering of McKinley more than the police could handle? Well, we reached out to him to ask him just those questions and what he was thinking when it happened. But before we get to our interview, I’m joined by reporting partner, Stephen Janis, who has been examining the video. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Thanks for having me, Taya. Appreciate it.
Taya Graham: So Stephen, for serious, a really interesting interaction where Tracy presents his ID, but does not actually hand it to the officer. What’s your take?
Stephen Janis: Well, it’s a really interesting interpretation of the law. What it shows is the law is sort of something that is language, right? So law can be interpreted, it can be sort of bent, or not necessarily bent, but interpreted in a way that could be favored to one party or another. And I think he is demonstrating that there, that you have your perspective on the law. What about if the law was actually fashioned with regards to the people who are subject to it? And I think that’s what makes this a very interesting form of pushback against the police.
Taya Graham: This is something we’ve seen with cop watchers, this detailed knowledge of the law. Why is this so important?
Stephen Janis: Well, because really these issues, these broader issues about police power and the ability of police to interfere in our lives or otherwise ignore our constitutional rights are played out in the courts, ultimately, that’s where they end up. I mean, the case law is important because case law is used as precedent to decide other cases. So all these sort of decisions that guide whether or not a cop can stop you for some reason, whether or not you have to go through a checkpoint. All this is decided in court with judges and lawyers. And the fact that activists are taking this and fashioning into law that can help them I think is extremely important.
Taya Graham: Now, this case involves the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office, and we’ve encountered them before in other cases. What’s your take on the interaction between Tracy and the sheriffs in the video?
Stephen Janis: Well, let’s remember one of our biggest videos was covering the arrest of Daniel Alverez by Los Angeles County sheriffs where we caught them on cameras calling him a jerk. I won’t use the word they actually used. But nevertheless, they are notorious for being very aggressive. There’s been a lot of scandals in that department, a lot of questions about racial bias. And I think it’s very interesting that this story unfolded as it did, because this is a department that is known to be really, really aggressive. So I think this is a really unusual outcome and something worth talking about.
Taya Graham: And now, we are joined by the man who took this video to talk about what happened and his thoughts on police interactions. Tracy McKinney, also known as Sip CanSeeAHigherPower. Tracy, thank you for joining us.
Tracy McKinley: Thanks for having me.
Taya Graham: So first, Tell us why the police pulled you over. What are we seeing in this video?
Tracy McKinley: They pulled me over. Allegedly, I ran a red light. Allegedly.
Taya Graham: So you displayed your license and registration to the officer. Why didn’t you want to hand them your property?
Tracy McKinley: From what I understand, there are US codes that say you don’t have to hand over your license or paperwork like registration and insurance to them. That’s what I heard. I read it for myself and I saw a few videos on it. You know what I mean? About it. And so I did it myself. I would’ve given it to her, to be honest with you, Taya. I would’ve given it to her, but she just irritated me from the start.
Taya Graham: So what did she do that irritated you?
Tracy McKinley: The tapping on my car, she could have messed my paint up or accidentally bust my windshield. She didn’t know how hard – She was tapping real hard with her flashlight or whatever she had in her hand.
Taya Graham: And how many officers arrived on the scene?
Tracy McKinley: It was nine officers out there.
Taya Graham: Wow. Well, there are a few moments where this could have escalated badly. One moment in particular I noticed where the officer put his hand on the gun, and another when an officer starts implying you might receive child endangerment charges. Were you concerned about where this was headed?
Tracy McKinley: Yes, I was. I was concerned about it.
Taya Graham: I noticed before you were willing to interact with police, you made certain your camera was up and recording. How important was recording this for your safety?
Tracy McKinley: Police out in this country have been hurting a lot of people and I didn’t want to be one of the next hashtags.
Taya Graham: Now, some people might watch this interaction and say that you were antagonistic with the officers, that you should have handed your license over, and that you should have stepped out of the car. How would you respond to that?
Tracy McKinley: Bootlicker.
Taya Graham: Well, that’s an interesting characterization. I feel like maybe you had a reason or goal in mind when you interacted with the officer this way and were so specific about what your rights were in the situation. Did you have a goal in mind? Were you trying to educate the public, or were you trying to educate the police?
Tracy McKinley: Both, to educate the public and educate the police officer. A lot of sheriffs don’t know a lot of laws. They just go off mere emotions.
Taya Graham: I have to ask. There are so many who have been injured and even killed by police even while complying with orders; Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Bell Jr., even Daniel Shaver. Did you consider those incidents of police brutality at any point? Were your cameras or your actions somewhat influenced by incidents of police misconduct?
Tracy McKinley: Yes, and also my own. I have incidents with them, and like I say, it’s all on the media about all their encounters with people.
Taya Graham: Tell me about the negative incidents with police officers that you had.
Tracy McKinley: I can say, a traffic stop I had, they pulled me over because – Actually I wasn’t even pulled over. Actually I was parked. I didn’t have my cameras or nothing on me at the time. They snatched me out there out of my truck and everything. For what? Because I’m parked there. If I’m illegally parked, just tell me to move. Why should I have to do all the extra and you touching on me and all that?
Taya Graham: Now, do you consider yourself part of the auditor or cop watcher movement?
Tracy McKinley: I’m definitely part of the cop watching movement.
Taya Graham: Well then who’s one of your favorite cop watchers?
Tracy McKinley: Tom Zebra. He tells the truth. He’s not ashamed about life and the truth. I love it. And I want to get out the truth too.
Taya Graham: Hey, I didn’t realize you’re with veteran cop watcher, Tom Zebra. Welcome back to PAR, Tom. So tell me, why do you think they pulled him over in the first place?
Tom Zebra: They didn’t pull him over to write him a ticket. They had no, they were pulling him over for one reason, it was to take him out of the car. That was the only interest they had. He cut them short. I just wanted to make sure that you know that, you probably already know that. Because that’s what I record them doing every day, every night. They’re not interested in that ticket. The only reason that ever came up is because they couldn’t get him out the car. They wanted to search him. They’re not interested in giving him a ticket. They want to take him to jail.
Taya Graham: Now, one of the reasons I wanted to feature this video on the show is because part of our job is not just to report on the state of policing now, but how it’s evolving. And most importantly, to take note and acknowledge what is driving the change we witness as it occurs. It’s an aspect of journalism that is just as important as documenting a specific case or incident, a responsibility to look at the larger trends to see if the cumulative effects of activists and cop watchers to affect change are actually affecting change, and if so, how? That’s why this case is so intriguing. As was revealed in our interview with Tracy, he had learned from the work of legendary cop watcher, Tom Zebra, and he had employed his knowledge of the law to push back against what Zebra described as a pretextual stop intended to lead to something more serious. Meaning this whole incident was not about running a red light.
And that’s why I think this case is so significant. That’s because the process of using the law to project power is usually the purview of police and high-priced lawyers. That is, as much as we think of law as a static set of guidelines of what we can and cannot do, it’s actually pretty malleable in the hands of a skilled practitioner or a power hungry cop.
Look at the controversial cop watcher Eric Brandt. Brandt was of course sentenced to 12 years in prison for making violent threats against judges, words which we do not condone, nor should anyone. But he has also been quite skilled at using the law to achieve goals that have elicited positive results. For instance, his first amendment lawsuit against the Aurora, Colorado, police over his arrest for a tattoo that said, ‘F the cops’, which led to a settlement for Brandt and First Amendment training for police. Or, his successful defense of handing out jury nullification flyers outside of a Denver courthouse that led to the Colorado Supreme Court codifying the right of others to do so.
Like the video we watched today, these victories are, in some sense, addressing an imbalance that has long been tilted towards law enforcement and the powers that be. Generally speaking, it’s the high-priced attorneys hired by rich elites that can bend and twist the law to their advantage. It’s why major corporations don’t have to pay taxes, or why someone like Jeffrey Epstein could run an underage brothel from the confines of his private jet.
Put frankly, a malleable disposition of the law has always been for sale. It’s just that the average American couldn’t afford to buy it. But now we have something different. Let’s just call it folk law or the people’s defense. And we see on the channels of cop watchers and auditors an acute awareness of how the law is a living, breathing body of ideas. We see what could be best described as folk law being applied so effectively, it actually appears to be setting a precedent that puts limits on how easily police can trample our constitutional rights.
Let’s not forget how our guests, the auditor and cop watcher The Battousai, made case law when he challenged an ordinance that said he could not record police facilities in Texas. A ruling which was enforced when he was detained by the police in Plano, Texas, for – wait for it – filming police headquarters there. The point is that I think that what we’ve seen in this story and in others is the people fighting back by refusing to concede the space that elites have often reserved solely for themselves by smartly using the law to push back against the limits of police power, and refusing to concede law enforcement’s sense of entitlement to bend it as they wish. We’re seeing a movement crystallizing around real change.
It’s good to protest and important to air grievances before the government, but what we see here is something different. The tools of the elites and their agents have been turned around on them and used in ways that really seem to catch them off guard. The law, which they tout as absolute for others and malleable for them, has suddenly become even more, interestingly, flexible, in the hands of the people. Isn’t it intriguing that the power of police suddenly seems less potent when confronted with even a cursory invocation of a technical interpretation of what the law actually means? Isn’t it fascinating how in the hands of the people, the law suddenly becomes a tool not just for the powerful, but a sort of equalizer for the rest of us?
I think that’s why the case we reported on today is both fascinating, and an example of a broader issue. It shows, for example, that in a sense, when faced with a camera, police are hesitant to abuse powers in ways that they’re accustomed to. It’s a reaction that begs the question; If what they do is so righteous and legal, then why not do it for all of us to see? If, without public scrutiny, you’re willing to drag a man out of his car and arrest him for running a red light, why on camera is your sense of entitlement and power so different and so less bold? And moreover, this everyman application of the law is the perfect antidote to a usually destructive form of policing we have discussed before on this show. The notion that the most potent form of police power is arbitrary. It’s an idea we’ve seen play out over and over again, where cops simply create their own laws and immediately improvise new powers on the spot.
In a sense, the whole point of using minor encounters over traffic lights and lane changes as an entry point is to invent, prescribe, and create powers that don’t exist and that our constitution doesn’t permit. Which is why covering cop watchers, who use those same laws to fight back, is such an important and intriguing development in the broader story of law enforcement overreach.
I mean, let’s think about it. If police were defined by an actual set of consistent laws, officers would have a hard time writing tickets for cash, making bogus arrests to fill jails, and using violence indiscriminately. If the ambiguity of the law exposed by cop watchers actually governs the bizarre series of car stops we’ve reported on, much of the police-created mayhem we’ve witnessed would’ve been much more difficult to justify. That’s why what we’ve seen in this car stop is so interesting and compelling. Confronted with the actual elements of the law, police power is not so absolute. And when forced to implement their arbitrary and improvised powers on camera for public scrutiny, their tactics and techniques suddenly seem less bold, to say the least.
The point is that for the first time in decades, the cover is being lifted on the underside of American law enforcement. The unconstitutional tactics and legal chaos of their stop and frisk mentality seems to be transformed when it is subject to public pushback and reverse surveillance. And most importantly, the law in its application is no longer the sole purview of the people who want to use the law as a cudgel of injustice and inequality. All thanks to cop watchers and activists across the country, we have covered and witnessed. It’s a sea change that might just be having an effect, which is why we will continue to report on these stories.
I want to thank my guest, Tracy, known as the cop watcher Sip CanSeeAHigherPower for his time and sharing his experience. Thank you, Tracy. And thanks to Tom Zebra as well. And of course, I have to thank intrepid journalist Stephen Janis for his writing, his research, his reporting on this piece. Thank you so much, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And of course I want to thank friend of the show Noli Dee for her support. Thanks, Noli Dee. And a shout out to the PAR family and Patreons. We appreciate you. And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate for you. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at [email protected] and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. And of course, you can always message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook, and please like and comment. You know I read your comments and appreciate them, and I try to answer your questions whenever I can.
And we now have a Patreon account called Accountability Reports. So if you have a few dollars to spare, it would really help us keep doing these investigations for you. Investigations and reports the mainstream media simply won’t do. So, please check for a link pinned in the comments below. My name is Taya Graham and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.