Preparedness

They Roam Public Buildings, Making Videos. Terrorism Experts Say They May be Dangerous

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

by Judy L. Thomas, The Kansas City Star / January 14, 2019
AP/Al Behrman

(TNS) - 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 self-described “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’s filmed at police stations and government buildings in Kansas City, Liberty, Raytown, Parkville, Independence, Shawnee and Overland Park, among others.

The targets of their 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 employees.

“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 sometimes conducts 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 ex-wife off the road with his truck. And in a 1999 case, he was accused of threatening to chop his former stepdaughter’s head off with an ax, according to court documents obtained by The Frontier, an online investigative journalism site.

The court records show no criminal convictions resulted from any of the incidents. Harper denied ever threatening anyone and told The Star that the cases “were all basically dismissed or dropped.”

Harper, 51, of Choctaw, Okla., said he spent six years in the U.S. Navy and worked in law enforcement as a jailer and a detention officer for nearly 18 years.

“It’s our First Amendment right to be able to do this,” he said, adding that he carries his handgun almost everywhere. “But when you exercise that right, you’d think we were plotting the end of the world. We’re labeled a terrorist, a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser, and they try to shut you down.”

He said the auditors pose no threat.

“We don’t go in there looking for a fight, looking for trouble,” he said. “We’re just going to walk through, we’re going to video our government buildings, our public places where we can be, and we’re going to leave. If they (authorities) want to get violent with us, that is going to be their decision.”

Roth acknowledged that the auditing tactics can come across as strange — even unnerving — but like Harper 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 not doing anything wrong.

Roth said he was arrested for refusing to give his identity but later charged with obstructing an officer. At a court hearing in Beaver on Wednesday, 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 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 Richards-Gebaur 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?”

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