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Tucson creates new ordinance to deter aggressive 'First Amendment auditors'
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Tucson creates new ordinance to deter aggressive 'First Amendment auditors'

The new city ordinance is meant to dissuade provocateurs from showing up at crime scenes with cellphones in hand, looking to create conflicts they can post online for profit.

Update June 8, 2020: Amid backlash, Tucson City Council will review ordinance on recording police

The Tucson Police Department will no longer be forced to star in videos that cater to cop-haters.

The City Council took action last week on a distinctly 21st century problem: people showing up at crime scenes with cellphones in hand, looking to create conflicts they can post online for profit.

It’s a trend seen by law enforcers around the country and around the state, the Arizona Daily Star found in a review of court records and related documentation.

The provocateurs are part of a loose network of people who call themselves “First Amendment auditors” and claim they’re protecting the public’s right to monitor government activities.

About a dozen such people are operating in Arizona, a former participant told the Star.

He said some regard themselves as “sovereign citizens,” an ideology linked to “domestic terrorism,” according to the FBI.

Tucson City Council members unanimously passed a new ordinance to curb such activity after viewing video of an extended verbal attack on a pair of TPD officers earlier this year.

The council created a new Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $750 fine. It allows TPD to arrest those who refuse to stay outside crime scene boundaries while filming at police calls.

In the video shown to council members, a man approached two officers, one of them female, as they guarded the perimeter of a crime scene. When asked to move back, he launched an X-rated tirade, shouting the B-word, the C-word, the F-word and other obscenities for about 20 minutes as his camera rolled.

“It was horrific,” Ward 4 council member Nikki Lee said of the footage.

“The emotional violence was pretty terrifying,” Ward 1 council member Lane Santa Cruz agreed.

The officers kept their cool during the run-in, the footage showed.

Meanwhile, online viewers of the live stream cheered the man’s outburst, and joined in by posting anti-police slurs such as “Oink Oink” and “Here Piggy-Piggy,” the Star found.

Some council members said they were shocked to learn existing laws didn’t quite cover such situations.

“The behavior on that video is so egregious, I can’t imagine there’s not something illegal about it,” said Ward 6 council member Steve Kozachik.

Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin said that until now, officers had few good options to deal with such cases.

One Arizona statute makes it a crime to refuse a police order to disperse, but it only applies if a fire or a riot is underway, Rankin said.

Another only applies if a person “uses force or threatens to use force” during an arrest.

A third law, the criminal trespassing statute, can only be enforced by order of “someone with lawful control of the property,” which doesn’t necessarily apply to police calls on public land, Rankin said.

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, who pushed for the new ordinance, said the problem is so pervasive it’s becoming a distraction for officers trying to carry out their duties.

“This has been happening, in some cases, on a nightly basis,” he told the council.

Magnus said TPD supports the public’s right to film police encounters, so long as it’s done from a safe distance at crime scenes that often are chaotic by nature.

Many other Arizona cities already have similar measures in place, he said.

The council will review the ordinance in a year to see if it’s working as intended and whether the boundaries police are setting up are reasonable for the circumstances.

Council member Lee, the mother of a biracial child, said she wants to make sure police are sensitive to the needs of minorities who may feel compelled to film law enforcement to protect themselves from perceived discrimination.

“This is something that affects the black community and other communities in a very special way,” Lee said.

The man who made the video that shocked council members has been arrested at least twice since 2018 over similar clashes with police in Texas and Florida, the Star found.

The Florida charge was dropped and one in Texas is winding through the courts, online records show.

The man’s name is listed in court records as Baoquoc Tran Nguyen, age 36. He has his own YouTube channel called Clash with Bao, with more than 100 videos that document run-ins with Tucson police, the Unversity of Arizona Police Department and many others.

Nguyen couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.

The Star tried to contact him through a former associate in Texas who said he forwarded the request for comment, but Nguyen did not respond by deadline.

The ex-associate, David Bailey, 57, of San Antonio, told the Star said he got to know Nguyen a few years back when he used to be a First Amendment auditor himself.

Bailey said Nguyen lives in a van he drives around the country in search of potential police conflicts that could make him more popular online and bring in financial rewards.

Bailey estimated about 500 Americans nationwide are involved in First Amendment auditing, a number he said is shrinking as more end up in legal trouble.

Some have turned into scammers, he said, like one who raised $9,000 online, ostensibly for legal fees, then pleaded guilty and kept the cash.

Others regard themselves as sovereign citizens not subject to courts and laws, which puts them at high risk of conflict with authorities, he said.

Bailey said he used to be a First Amendment auditor and believed he was helping to protect constitutional freedoms. He said he became disillusioned and no longer associates with Nguyen and doesn’t support his profane approach to stirring up controversy.

“This shouldn’t just be about clicks and fame,” said Bailey, who admits to a personal distrust of law enforcement.

He said he’s currently a plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Texas police department.

Even so, “to harass police for laughs, I can’t understand it,” Bailey said.

“I just don’t see the point.”

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or calaimo@tucson.com. On Twitter: @StarHigherEd

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