Just how far will the criminal justice system go to quash dissent? The case of popular police auditor Otto the Watchdog is a cautionary tale of how far prosecutors and cops will go to pursue charges against people who hold them accountable.
In this episode, PAR speaks with Otto the Watchdog about his three-year ordeal fighting charges for holding a sign police said was offensive, and why he made the decision not to plead guilty after prosecutors offered him a deal to avoid jail.
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 don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead, we examine the system that makes bad policing possible. And today we’re going to achieve that goal by examining just how far police and prosecutors will go to quash dissent–a tale of protracted prosecution against a popular auditor named Otto the Watchdog that raises serious questions about the underlying imperative of our country’s criminal justice system.
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@example.com, and we might be able to investigate for you. And, of course, you can always message me directly @TayasBaltimore on Facebook or Twitter, and please like, share, and comment on our videos. It really does help us. And I try to answer your comments when I can. Now we’ve got that out of the way.
One of our most important tasks on the show is following up on stories we reported on before. It’s something we feel is vital to our mission: letting the cops and the courts know we will not relent when we believe a story warrants our attention. And one of those ongoing tales involves a man who is no stranger to the show. His name is Otto the Watchdog, and he is a hardworking copwatcher and auditor who’s created some of the most memorable videos and tactics in the annals of holding police accountable.
Let’s remember it was Otto who spontaneously did this bowing in front of a Texas cop who was harassing him outside a gas station. This incident documented in this video clip was a brilliant and also revealing take on police power. That not only seemed to confound the cops confronted by it, but also created one of the most memorable images I’ve ever seen, on any channel, anywhere. And believe me, I’ve watched a lot of YouTube.
But it’s the consequences of Otto’s work that we will discuss in detail today. That’s because –and I’m not kidding–this week, Otto will be in court for this. Holding a sign. So, what kind of sign? Well, as you can see from this video, a sign that, while you may not agree with the sentiment, certainly makes some intriguing arguments about the current state of this country. It’s one we might call a satirical commentary on the frustration and futility of American life, which often seems truly beyond repair. But it’s also a way, Otto told us, he expresses his frustration with a system that marginalizes people and consistently overlooks their humanity. Let’s listen.
Otto the Watchdog: The sign was a work in progress. It probably took maybe six months to develop the idea behind it. Which sounds a little silly, but I was having a lot of conversations at the time with people, about political things, mostly. And there was always a common theme that somebody would be, “Fuck them.” Or this or that, whatever it was. And I just popped off and I said, “Well, the system isn’t going to fuck itself.” And that was really the start of it. And then people would say things like, “That shit’s fucked up.” And I would respond with, “And stuff.” Right? It really was just little catches that would come about in conversation, that I ended up putting on a sign.
Taya Graham: What happened when Otto decided to stand here, on a public road, holding this sign really seems to belie logic, standing as you can see here, minding his own business, holding his sign, expressing his general sense of dissatisfaction, and the officers pounce. Of course, this is when we see for the first time the infamous–or perhaps I should say legendary–Otto flop, which I will let him explain.
Otto the Watchdog: OK. What’s apparently known as the Otto flop. It’s not … I didn’t create that. I think that’s been a long-standing tradition of activists for a long time. If I was ever to be placed under arrest for something that I knew, absolutely knew, was not a crime, that that’s what I would do. And I did. And I was charged with interference with public duties for laying down on the ground.
Taya Graham: But what’s really notable, and I might say even incredible, about the story is that the arrest is just the beginning. In fact, what happened in the ensuing months and years make this a remarkable tale of police overreach and another stark example of our justice system running amok that prosecutors have continued to prosecute.
That’s because instead of writing Otto a citation or dropping the case, that is clearly covered by the First Amendment, prosecutors are still hauling Otto into court. In fact, in days, Otto will be in court to defend himself and his right to hold a sign, because the criminal justice system in Royse City, Texas, apparently had nothing better to do.
And before I talked to Otto about why this is happening and how it has affected him, I’m joined by my reporting partner, Stephen Janis. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: Stephen, this is not the only set of charges Otto’s facing. Can you talk about the felony camping charges?
Stephen Janis: Yeah, I mean, this is an outrageous case from the beginning, not just a case of him standing there with a freaking sign. But the case that they had prosecuted him for, supposedly camping with his children, which they turned into a felony, which is really because of the call of some sort of Karen who said she was concerned. But really turns out to be nothing but bogus, because he was just trying to go to court and take care of his kids. And so it’s really a horrible case. And a really, I think, a horrible example of the misuse of the criminal justice system.
Taya Graham: Now the prosecutor has offered Otto a plea deal. What exactly did they offer him?
Stephen Janis: Well, this is really no deal at all, Taya. I mean, seriously. They want him to plead guilty to what would be misdemeanor camping, instead of felony camping. And they want him to plead guilty to holding a sign. None of these are crimes, but it’s a typical example. Prosecutors stack up the charges. They want to make up their own mistakes by saying, basically, “You won’t have to go to jail” as a way to get people to plead guilty to something that they didn’t do. It is a misuse of criminal justice system, is a misuse of the power of a prosecutor. It’s a misuse in general, and really should not happen.
Taya Graham: You have done some reporting on this jurisdiction, Rockwell and Royse City, where his so-called crime occurred. And it seems to me to be a prime example of overpolicing. What have you learned?
Stephen Janis: We did analysis last year of calls for service in Royse, and about 20%-30% of them were for suspicious people and other types of, forgive my French, BS. So really what you’re seeing is police looking for something to do. And that’s what applies to Otto’s case. Otto is giving out food to people. He was being a good community person, and now they’re putting them through hell. And forgive me for getting emotional, but this case really is just terrible. And it really is exemplar of all the things we report about why this criminal justice system is just completely unbalanced and out of control.
Taya Graham: And now, to get more on his trial and what might happen, I’m joined by Otto himself. Otto, thank you so much for joining us.
Otto the Watchdog: Hey, I appreciate you for doing it, Taya. Thank you.
Taya Graham: Otto, you’ve been offered a plea deal. Can you talk about it? And are you going to take the plea? And if not, can you tell us why?
Otto the Watchdog: I’ve been offered several plea deals. And the trial is allegedly coming up soon. This is currently still pre-trial. I’m not inclined to take the deal, and I’ll tell you why. One, I’ve admitted guilt to things in the past that I didn’t do. And that was, oh man, 20 years ago. That old, am I that old. Something like that, about 20 years ago. And it still bothers me. I still have problems with myself, I don’t think it affects my … Well, it may have affected my life, but it still bothers me. So, no, I can’t. I’m not going to do that again. The deal is that I plead guilty to everything they accused me of, and they would let me go with no jail and no fine. It’s just a conviction.
And, honestly, I think for most people that’s a reasonable offer. Whether you’re guilty or not, that’s a reasonable offer. And that’s why most people take a plea. I sit in a lot of courtrooms. I sit in a lot of courtrooms. And a common thing is, when people come up to court, they initially try to argue the facts, right? They think that,… I don’t know why they think this, but they think that when you get to come to court, that you get to argue your case. But that’s not the way it happens. You show up to court and say, “I am not guilty.” And then they say, “Okay, come back in three months.”
As a matter of fact, I’ve been arrested for the same disorderly conduct at least three times. And I’ve yet to be convicted. I haven’t even been to trial. We haven’t even … I’ve been fighting for three years. But all they do is kick you down the road.
Taya Graham: You were also battling another set of charges related to a camping incident. Can you talk about what those charges are?
Otto the Watchdog: Yeah. It’s really hard to talk about. And I’ve had lots of time to process it, and it hasn’t helped even a little bit. It still hurts every time. Forgive me. But the charges that they put against me of child endangerment is usually reserved for people who do something or leave their kids to go do dope, or something like that. And as a result of being charged with child endangerment, I wasn’t able to even speak with my children for a year, a little over a year. It was 16 months, actually, before the prosecutor finally decided to make a modification to the bond which would allow me to communicate with them again. Only on certain times and things like that. I get visitation with my kids, which is, I think that’s a rough term. It implies that no one of us is … I mean, It’s just a strange term, visitation. I get to visit with my children.
And this is all before I’d been convicted of anything. I have no convictions of any kind. So, when they … We were already going through a rough spot, right? It was already rough. We were making the most of it at the time, as it was. Now we have the court trying to tell not just me, but also my entire family and my extended family, how we can live and what rules we have to abide by. And none of us agree to these terms. Everybody thinks it’s ridiculous, right? And I can’t even tell my kids I love them. You know, that was the absolute worst. And to be honest with you, I almost didn’t make that. I almost didn’t make it. That was the absolute roughest.
I still got pictures and things like that. So now, my kids are out there and I know that they’re going through some stuff and I can’t even talk to them about it. Right? I can’t do nothing. I just have to sit there and watch. And I was afraid that they thought that I abandoned them. Thankfully, my family is pretty awesome and kept reminding them that daddy loves them. When I finally got to see them again, that was a pretty big deal, man. But it should’ve never happened. I wasn’t doing anything at all. I was minding my own business. Trying to do what they wanted me to do. I was trying to show up to court. And I just keep getting arrested, on the way to court.
It’s fucked up. I made fun of them and they crushed me. As a result of it. I don’t want to say they [inaudible] me, but they fucking might have. I’m not the same person that I was two years ago, three years ago. My god, it’s been three years. And I’ve had very little resolution on my case. The only one that I even care about at this point is the camping with my children case, because that one has all the pain with it. And I miss my kids, man. And the kids … When you got a six-year-old and he hasn’t seen his dad in three years, what the fuck? It’s not like I disappeared. It’s not like I ran off. I’m right here. I’ve been here the whole time. I just can’t talk to him.
Taya Graham: I’m sorry.
Otto the Watchdog: It was right before Christmas. And then all the birthdays right after that. I’ve missed a lot, man. I just hope it doesn’t fuck them up. They offered to reduce the felony child endangerment to a misdemeanor as long as I plead guilty to everything that they accused me of. Knowing that I have a federal lawsuit filed on them on the sign case, the [inaudible] sign case. And I didn’t even file that–I didn’t even file that lawsuit until damn near two years after the event. They had plenty of time to dismiss that case, well before I ever filed a lawsuit. Now they’re telling my attorney, and I do have an attorney on that case now, by the way, I couldn’t afford that. I still can’t afford it. Thankfully there’s people who really give a shit about me, obviously. And if it wasn’t for the generosity of people around and their … I don’t even know. I don’t understand that.
But anyway, I have an attorney on that case now. And he told me that they said that the Royse City municipal court, city court, [guilty] court, the guilty court in Royse City said, the prosecutor Jason Day–fuck you–said if I would drop my lawsuit, that they would dismiss the charges. Okay. Well, if you had been fighting a case for three years, what do you mean? My other attorney and a different case, told me that the reason I’m wearing the ankle monitor and have been for two years is they want an insurance policy that I am not going to terrorize their town with the F-word for at least the next couple of years. So I’ve been wearing an ankle monitor because people don’t want to see my sign. Which is the exact reason why I have the sign to begin with. Because shit is fucked up and nobody’s doing anything about it.
Taya Graham: So, Otto, I talked about Franz Kafka’s book The Trial in a recent episode, and how the travails of the book’s main character mirror the often absurd process of our criminal justice system. And I know you recently read it. What do you think?
Otto the Watchdog: Yeah, Franz Kafka, I believe he’s a Czech author, who writes a lot of stories about … It’s kind of twisted. He’s like the Edgar Allan Poe of … I don’t even know. He’s like Edgar Allan Poe. Everything has got a little twist on it that makes it just that much worse. And yeah, this is definitely from one of his books. And it’s not just my case. We see a lot of this. The old folks might say that you can’t win for losing. In Kafka’s The Trial, if I remember right, the main character is continuously trying to find out what he did. He’s also trying to find out when and where he’s supposed to be. They keep demanding that he shows up, but they don’t tell him when or where, and that resonated. And then he’s also trying to figure out what he did the whole time. And even after he’s convicted, he still has no idea what he was ever accused of.
Those things resonate with me. And in my particular case, we’ve been set for trial before, and they would change the date of the trial and not tell me. So I would show up to court and then there is no court. And, mind you, I live in Colorado. It’s a 10 hour drive, at least, to get there. It’s not just the 10 hours you drive there, and you spend a day, and then you have to drive back. It’s expensive. And that’s rough. And then I just show up, and it’s all for naught.
I’ve been fighting these cases, this disorderly conduct, I’ve been fighting that for three years, that was 2018. And the camping with kids case, that was 2019. So these are getting on along there. A speedy trial. You have a right to a speedy trial. That’s a joke. That’s another joke. It’s one of those things that we want to believe, because it sounds good. But in practice, it doesn’t exist. At least in my experience. So when Kafka’s talking about going to court, this man has no idea why he’s there. He doesn’t know where he’s supposed to go. He doesn’t know anything. I still don’t know why I’m facing child endangerment charges. I have an understanding only because I have experience in pulling these records for myself. Otherwise I still wouldn’t know what they were even alleging. All they said is that it was child endangerment, and I guess because it was hot or because it was no food or water, but none of those things are true. So even after two years, I don’t know what I did that I wasn’t supposed to do.
Taya Graham: I’m sure there are some viewers who might say, “What’s the big deal? Why should we care if a guy named Otto the Watchdog is facing a trial for holding a sign, with a few random profanities? What does it matter? And how has it germane to the process of police accountability, especially since Otto made the choice to protest? Aren’t there real cases of police brutality that need your attention?”
Well, let me explain why I think Otto’s story matters. First, it’s an excellent question. I mean, as the Washington Post just reported, American police are on a pace to kill over a thousand people this year alone. It’s a number that is similar to past years. It shows no sign of abating, despite nationwide calls for reform. And as we’ve noted on this show before, it’s a level of deadly police interactions that continues to exceed any other place in the world.
But I think there’s something about the work of Otto that is more important than meets the eye. It’s a byproduct of these sort of encounters that must be acknowledged and also understood.
To explain what I mean, I’m going to use a personal experience to offer some perspective. It’s something I noticed when I was in Denver, covering the sentencing of Eric Brandt. As we’ve reported on before, Eric was sentenced to 12 years in prison for making threats against several Colorado judges. The sentence was derided by his supporters as overly harsh–a sentiment that has been echoed across the country by many of his YouTube followers who believe that Eric was mistreated, and also misunderstood.
But what also struck me about my experience during our coverage of his court proceedings was something more subtle, but still instructive. Here in Maryland, where Stephen and I both live and report, the court system is quite different than what we experienced in Colorado. Here, not only are we barred from bringing a camera into the courtroom, but if you even turn on your cell phone inside the courthouse it can be confiscated. And judges seemed quite comfortable yelling at reporters. And there are hardly any, in fact, there are no accommodations, for the press.
But that is not what I experienced in Denver. Stephen and I were actually allowed to bring our cameras inside, and even interview people inside the courthouse. There was even a media area just outside the courtroom doors. We were allowed to petition the court to film the proceedings. A motion that was unfortunately denied, but not even an option on the table here in Maryland.
Now, I’m not saying that this difference in how we could work translates to any sort of better justice inside the courtroom. I’m not even trying to make the case that somehow reflects any sort of real accountability for the Denver judiciary.
No. The point I’m trying to make is that the difference in access, I think, has a real psychological effect on how judges and law enforcement behave. The fact that at least cameras can get inside the courtroom is at least a start towards making the people in power take we, the people they serve, more seriously.
And I truly believe what made the small amount of progress even possible was the work of people like Otto, and Eric Brandt, and Brian Loma, and Pikes Peak Auditors, and Liberty Freak, and Munkay83, holding protests, challenging authority, and even using some unconventional tactics. I think their work, resulting in what some might characterize as clickbait or superfluous protests, actually tips the scale back against the absolute power that law enforcement seems to cherish.
I mean, just look at what happened after Eric’s verdict. Brian Loma, Frank Sturgell, and Chris Powers express their displeasure on the courthouse grounds, just after the sentence was handed down.
Now, if you think you could do something like that here in the city of Baltimore, thank again. Because it is acts of dissent like this, however minor and inconvenient they might seem, that I think make a real difference. Acts of microresistance that lead to incremental process, which is better than no progress at all, believe me.
I’m not saying or arguing that every bizarre sign and unorthodox antic is worthy of reporting on. And I’m not even saying that the small amount of freedom allowed to us in the courthouse will amount to any real change in how justice–or injustice–is meted out. All I’m trying to convey here is that dissent is not clean, simple, or even easy to measure in the context of what it aims to achieve. I’m trying to argue that tactics that can seem unconventional, or even silly, can also be effective.
And I also think it’s important to make the point that regardless of how you judge their behavior, the reality is that the job of holding our massive criminal-industrial complex accountable is messy, and sometimes just plain absurd.
That is why we cover cop watchers like Otto the Watchdog and Eric Brandt. And that is why we will continue to try and add context to what they do. That’s why we interview people like James Freeman, and Laura Shark, and Tom Zebra, Dale Lackluster, and James Madison, and the Battousai. And that’s why we’ll continue to follow their stories as they work to achieve the goal of this show: holding police accountable, and the political elites who make bad policing possible.
I want to thank my guest, Otto the Watchdog, for taking the time to join us and to share his experiences with the criminal justice system. Otto, thank you so much for your time, and sharing your story. And, of course, I have to thank Stephen Janis for his incredible reporting, research, writing, and editing for this piece. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And I have to thank friend of the show Noli Dee for her support. Thanks, Noli D. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at PoliceAccountabilityReport on Facebook or Instagram, or @EyesOnPolice on Twitter. And, of course, you can always message me directly @TayasBaltimore on Twitter and Facebook. And please like and comment. I do read your comments, appreciate them. And I try to answer your questions whenever I can. And we also have a Patreon called Police Accountability Reports. So, if this type of reporting is important to you, please take the time to take a look, and maybe even donate. My name is Taya Graham, and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.