The Police Accountability Report obtained an exclusive recording of a 911 operator threatening to arrest a caller complaining about a SWAT team that stormed her property without a warrant. The call is part of our ongoing investigation into the arrest of Columbus, OH resident Nic Petit, who was charged after filming officers slapping a suspect.
TAYA GRAHAM: Hello. My name is Taya Graham. And welcome to The Police Accountability Report.
This is a breaking news report with exclusive footage. Now, I know we start every show with a pledge that the point of the show is to hold the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And we also say we go beyond the headlines and dig deep into the details to do so. And I want you to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to me privately at email@example.com. And please like, share, and comment on our video. I do read your comments and appreciate them. You can follow The Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. And of course, you can follow me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook and Twitter. And I want to thank you for joining us for the first season of The Police Accountability Report. We will be taking a short break, but we’ll be back with a new show premiering on YouTube on December 5.
Now that that’s out of the way, today we’re going to show you exactly what it means because we had done some digging, and the details we’ve unearthed about a case we investigated are truly disturbing. The information we obtained is related to this: the brutal arrest of Columbus, Ohio resident Nic Petitt. Petitt was taking a video from his front porch of a SWAT team as they made an arrest. When he caught one of the officers striking a suspect, he called them out, and then this confrontation occurred. Petitt was arrested and charged with misconduct during an emergency, charges that were dropped later after we called the Columbus City Prosecutor’s Office.
But we felt there were many unanswered questions about this case, so we filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the body cam footage and use of force reports, and what we received was revealing. First, as we’ve already said about the arrest, it’s a perfect example of the growing power of militarized police, but it’s not just cops in camouflage driving armored vehicles that drives home the point. We want to listen to a 911 call by Nic Petitt’s sister-in-law after police invaded her home without a warrant.
SPEAKER: And you’re calling 911 with SWAT there?
SPEAKER 2: Yes, because they’ve come over here on my property without a warrant–
SPEAKER: Okay, ma’am, ma’am–
SPEAKER 2: …and arrested my brother-in-law. And they’re talking about arresting me because I’m recording.
SPEAKER: Ma’am, ma’am.
SPEAKER 2: Yes.
SPEAKER: Ma’am, listen to me.
SPEAKER 2: That’s your SWAT officer yelling at me right now because I got my door open.
SPEAKER: Listen to me. Listen to me. You’re going to get charged with misuse of 911.
SPEAKER 2: How?
SPEAKER: Because you’re calling 911 when the police are at your house.
SPEAKER 3: What the hell? You don’t know shit about anything going on here.
SPEAKER 2: That’s what I’m saying, because I called them because they came on my property. They don’t have a warrant or nothing. I’m a victim.
SPEAKER: Again, ma’am, you’re calling 911 with the police at your house.
SPEAKER 2: Yeah, because they don’t have a warrant for my address.
SPEAKER: Okay. Well, that doesn’t warrant you calling 911.
SPEAKER 2: Because I was outside trying to find out what’s going on in my neighborhood right next door to my house. And they’re telling me I can’t … First, they said I couldn’t record, and now they’re sitting there arresting my brother because he was outside recording, and we went to call y’all because of this. They’re yelling at us and threatening us that if we don’t go inside, they’re going to fucking arrest us all. They just said that to you when he was on the phone with you. I don’t have to be outside my house if I don’t want to. They just got done arresting my brother-in-law for recording and they just sat there and basically shoved me and was getting ready to arrest me before I called y’all, and I was like, “No, I’m putting you on speaker phone.”
TAYA GRAHAM: Stephen, you heard that 911 call and the desperation and fear in her voice. So tell me, is it illegal to call 911? What do you make of the operator’s response?
STEPHEN JANIS: What you’re seeing here is the concept of American law enforcement called blanket criminality, which means that any interaction with police can be turned and twisted into a criminal act based upon the premise of the police in that situation. In other words, we’ve seen in Baltimore where they create blanket criminality of certain neighborhoods based upon race or income and they create blanket criminality when it comes to, let’s say, the rights of our property with asset forfeiture. Any sort of possession of anything can be inverted to be the abrogation of your entire array of civil rights. And in this case, because of this militarized unit that came in looking just exactly like a militarized unit in any other sort of war zone, they applied blanket criminality to everybody. I mean, the woman was on her porch, the Petitt sister-in-law was on her porch. They were videotaping police, all constitutionally protected activities.
TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely.
STEPHEN JANIS: And it’s ironic she calls 911 and 911 says, “We’re going to arrest you,” or, “We’re going to charge you with a crime.” So as you can see, they applied this idea of blanket criminality to population that descends from policing or invokes or writes. It’s absolutely a tactic and a strategy and underlying philosophy in policing that means policing has blanket power without any sort of checks and balances afforded to us in the system, and I think it’s extremely concerning.
TAYA GRAHAM: The bottom line, invoking her civil rights prompted the threat of arrest. Her pleas for help were met with threats of violence. It’s a revealing and troubling exchange, but not the end of the story. Now, let’s take a look at the body camera footage. It’s worth noting that the SWAT team officers do not wear body cameras. Why they don’t has not been explained. So the footage we’re looking at is from the officers who came on the scene after Petitt’s arrest, and what it shows reveals just how scary the militarization of police is. As you’ll notice, unlike the other officers, the SWAT team members’ faces are hidden. In other words, despite being public servants paid by us and empowered by an ostensibly democratic government, they operate under a veil of secrecy. Stephen, what do you make of this? You can actually see SWAT officers with their faces covered and then in the footage, it’s censored.
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, it’s interesting because it shows that the laws do not apply to police that are supposed to apply to the rest of us. These type of cases of filming police and showing them on camera have been settled across the country, and judges have ruled in favor of people taking video, that police have no expectation of privacy while in process of doing their public duties, making arrests, whatever, none whatsoever, whether they’re undercover or whatever.
So why does the Columbus Police Department decide that these police officers should be afforded secrecy? What you’re talking about is not privacy. You’re talking about secrecy, secrecy of people who are committing public acts of arrests on behalf of us. So really, what you’re talking about is creating a secret police. It’s bad enough they’re in camouflage. It’s bad enough they have weaponry that looks like they’re ready to go to a war zone, and now they’re supposed to be secret. It doesn’t make any sense because the law provides that police are not afforded. They have no expectation of privacy in any situation. So I think it raises, again, troubling questions about what kind of police do we have.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, let’s take a look at an exchange that is critical to understand how difficult it is to protect your rights when faced with cops and Kevlar and camouflage. To do so, we’re joined now by Nic Petitt. Nic, thank you so much for joining us.
NIC PETITT: Thank you for having me.
TAYA GRAHAM: So Nic, let me first ask you: When you heard that 911 call, how does it make you feel to hear the dispatcher threatening to charge your family member with a crime simply for asking for help?
NIC PETITT: To be honest with you, it’s hard to say. I thought that along with the police that they were there to help and protect people, but now it kind of makes me wonder, is there a limit to where this overstepping of what their duties are? Does it not just go for the police? Does it extend to all emergency personnel now?
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s a reasonable question. It really is. And I’m sorry. I’m sure it was upsetting to hear how desperate she was for help and to hear how the dispatcher actually threatened her with arrest, and I’m sure that was really difficult for you to listen to. We’re going to show you some video footage now that is going to show a critical moment in your arrest. One of the SWAT team members asks you for your cell phone code, but you refuse.
NIC PETITT: Just hold it down
SPEAKER 3: No, he did not come off that porch. I for a fact know that.
SPEAKER 4: Do you want me to use this address for your home address?
NIC PETITT: Yes.
SPEAKER 3: Can you read that child his rights?
SPEAKER 4: We got the phone number, sarge.
NIC PETITT: I didn’t step off the porch, not one time. At what point did I step off the porch? The video shows me standing on the porch the entire time.
TAYA GRAHAM: So Nic, why did you refuse to turn over your cell phone code?
NIC PETITT: Well, I know that anything that’s locked is considered private property, and without a warrant you can’t enter that private property, whether it be a cell phone, a car, home, a dog house, a she shed, and it’s my legal right to refuse.
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, it seems clear to me that the officer was concerned about the footage you shot. What do you think? What do you think would have happened if he got access?
NIC PETITT: Honestly, I think if he had gotten access, that he probably would’ve deleted the video. I mean, as it shows in the video, there was an officer that assaulted a 15 year old child.
STEPHEN JANIS: And he was really insistent about getting that code, right? He really wanted the code, because for a while you’re [inaudible 00:09:32] say, “Look, I’ll just unlock it for you,” but he really wanted the code, right?
NIC PETITT: Right. He kept asking. When I was on the porch at the end of my original video, you can hear him saying, “Give me the phone.”
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right. So what do you think he didn’t want people to see? I guess what exactly occurred, right?
NIC PETITT: Right, pretty much everything in general. That was just not what was supposed to happen.
TAYA GRAHAM: Stephen, does an officer need a warrant to gain access to his–
STEPHEN JANIS: Yes.
TAYA GRAHAM: Case closed. He needs a warrant.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yes. As Nic states, that’s his private property. You need a warrant to access a phone. You can’t just go into someone’s phone. There’s been a lot of Supreme Court precedent on this, generally siding with people that have a right to privacy. It’s the fourth amendment. It’s a typical fourth amendment case, right? Without a search warrant, you’re not supposed to access people’s belongings. If a phone isn’t your belonging, I don’t know what it is, and I think it’s a classic case of police trying to suppress unflattering information about them. So yes, the police officer would need a warrant. He should’ve gotten a warrant first, not asked him for his code to unlock his phone.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now finally, I want to read an excerpt from the use of force statement provided by the officer. And he says, and I quote, “I placed the suspect on the ground.” Nic, would you characterize that as an accurate description of what happened to you, that you were placed on the ground?
NIC PETITT: No, not at all. As you can see in the original video, if placing is what they did in that video, then I don’t want to be placed anywhere.
TAYA GRAHAM: Fair enough. Fair enough.
STEPHEN JANIS: How would you actually describe it? Instead of place, what word would you use?
NIC PETITT: It was very rough. They slammed me against the wall and from there, it was more kind of like a body slam against the porch.
TAYA GRAHAM: Wow.
STEPHEN JANIS: Wow.
NIC PETITT: I had my hands behind my back in what they call flex cuffs and then from there, I was essentially body slammed on my face.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s terrible. Nic, you were polite and compliant throughout the entire arrest. When you asked the police officer why you were being arrested and why you couldn’t just walk across the street and go home, he responded, “I don’t know.” Did that surprise you?
NIC PETITT: No, not at all. I’m used to responses like that from officers on a daily basis. I get pulled over for just a random pull-over and I’ll be like, “Well, is there a reason why I’m being stopped?” They’re like, “Well, we don’t know yet.” It’s a normal thing here in Columbus.
STEPHEN JANIS: So they just pull people over, just random car stops and they don’t really give you a pretext or anything? They just pull you over?
NIC PETITT: Yeah, a lot of times they will.
STEPHEN JANIS: Wow.
TAYA GRAHAM: Nic, it took hours for you to be arrested, processed, and then you were kept in jail for days. Do you think this kept your community safer? I mean, do you think this was a good use of your city’s resources?
NIC PETITT: No, because if I’m the worst that this neighborhood has, God save America.
STEPHEN JANIS: In other words, they weren’t making your community safer is what you’re saying?
NIC PETITT: No, they were not. If anything, it just instilled fear into the neighbors and into the rest of the people in the neighborhood.
TAYA GRAHAM: You know, that makes a lot of sense that if I was your neighbor, I would be worried the next time I called police if I knew the story of what happened to you and your family members. I would be genuinely concerned. And if you’re the worst that’s in the neighborhood, I want to move to your neighborhood.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. One thing that’s really interesting, Nic, they had all this military style equipment on their uniforms. Wasn’t that a little intimidating? I mean, it seemed like they were geared up to go to war, didn’t it?
NIC PETITT: Yeah, it definitely did. I remember seeing SWAT once as a child. I mean, I’ve seen them here recently, but what I showed in my video was how they looked throughout me growing up except for in the early ’90s when I lived in the lower east side of Columbus, and they look nothing like they did then. Back then, they had on jeans and tee shirt, a vest. It looked like regular civilians, just with better equipment than what police had.
STEPHEN JANIS: But now what do you think? How would you characterize them now?
NIC PETITT: I think that honestly, they look like they had just left bootcamp, like they just left the military base. I mean, it was kind of shocking to see them in full–
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, they had everything Kevlar.
TAYA GRAHAM: And it almost looked like they had a tank there. I mean, honestly, it looked like they had military equipment in the street and the guns they had were definitely not what we normally see on our police officers here in Maryland.
NIC PETITT: Well, not too long ago, they raided another house a couple of streets down and I just so happened to be around the area, and it was pretty funny. The guy that they were looking for, they got him to come out of the house, and I overheard what they called the vehicle is they called them bear cats.
STEPHEN JANIS: Bear cats. Wow.
TAYA GRAHAM: Wow. Bear cats.
STEPHEN JANIS: So they did another military style raid in your neighborhood recently, in the past… When did this happen?
NIC PETITT: I want to say about a month ago.
STEPHEN JANIS: How can anyone in your community view the police with any sort of trust when you see this bear cat with people in military uniforms? I mean, it must engender fear with people.
NIC PETITT: I mean, nobody does. Nobody in the neighborhood trusts the police. They would rather handle things on their own than call the police just for that matter.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s a shame. So the question that looms over the entire incident and the evidence we just reviewed is why, and not just why we have militarized police using armored personnel carriers in a resident American community or why the department made those camouflage-wearing cops a veritable secret police by hiding their identity, but why would any agency interested in improving public safety waste so much time and effort to arrest Nic Petitt? Perhaps a recent study of arrest patterns in the US offers an answer. According to recently released statistics from the FBI, the number of drug arrests for simple possession has increased dramatically since 2015.
In fact, despite growing support for the decriminalization of marijuana, the US police made roughly 600,000 pot arrests, for again, just possession. So what can we conclude from these numbers? Maybe that the bulk of American policing has nothing to do with safety, public opinion or the needs of the community. Instead, American policing has become a self-serving, insular institution that profits off misery. If you’re skeptical, I urge you to watch the body cam footage of Petitt’s post-arrest processing. Hours of time is spent transporting, interviewing, and shuttling Nic around Columbus. If crime and chaos was the real concern, then why on earth would they prioritize arresting a man whose only crime was using his cell phone on his own property?
But perhaps it reveals the true imperative of policing because Nic’s real mistake was trying to hold a group of camouflage cops accountable. His real transgression was demanding police do their job with integrity and respect. Let’s face it, the evidence we found makes it clear. The police do not, cannot tolerate dissent, and if that’s true as we’ve seen, what does that say about the institution of policing itself? What does it say about the future of our civil liberties if this ever expanding law enforcement industrial complex expends so much energy on keeping us silent? I’d like to thank our guest, Nic Petitt, for joining us again today. Thank you so much, Nic.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. Thanks, Nic.
NIC PETITT: Thank you for having me.
TAYA GRAHAM: And of course I’d like to thank my co-host, Stephen Janis, for his investigative reporting and research. And I want you to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it privately to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please like, share and comment on our video. You know I read your comments and I appreciate them. You can follow The Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or @eyesonpolice on Twitter, and of course you can follow me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook and Twitter.
I want to thank you for joining us for the first season of The Police Accountability Report. We are taking a short break, but we’ll be back with a new show premiering on YouTube December 5th. And I want to thank friend of the show, Noli Dee, for her help and support. Thank you, Noli. I’m your host, Taya Graham, and I want to thank you for joining me for The Police Accountability Report. Be safe out there.