The story of cop watcher Otto The Watchdog reveals how American law enforcement uses the criminal justice system to retaliate against critics and their families. But Otto is not alone, First Amendment activists, auditors and protesters all around the U.S. are feeling the blue backlash.
Police Accountability Report, hosted by Taya Graham and Stephen Janis, is a weekly show that seeks to expose and hold to account one of the most powerful institutions in this country—the police.
Please help us make real news!
Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. Remember, this show has a single purpose, holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable, a purpose which appears to be growing more and more difficult by the day. That’s because even as we scrutinize the system which makes bad policing possible, the country’s law enforcement industrial complex has proven not just resilient but almost untouchable.
And to illustrate that point, we’re going to tell the story of one of our former guests. It’s a tale that reveals how police can target their immense powers at those who try to hold them accountable, even if the gesture is innocuous. His name is Otto the Watchdog, and he’s a well-known cop watcher. And I’m sure most of our regular viewers remember this: his arrest in Royse City, Texas for holding a sign one motorist found offensive. The sign pictured here, was at worst, a frank comment on the state of the country’s criminal justice system. But the encounter with police, which ended with the now famous Otto flop, is notable for something else, how far police and prosecutors are willing to pursue Otto for this victimless crime. That’s because even though Otto moved to Colorado, the county prosecutor has continued to press the case, requiring Otto return to Texas multiple times to court for a simple misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct.
So what does Otto’s ordeal teach us, and what can we learn from it? Well let’s look at the facts. Otto holds a sign expressing his disgust with the system that he finds both oppressive and out of control. What’s more American than that? Police arrest him for exercising his Constitutional rights, but Otto refuses to stay silent. And then they use the criminal justice system to retaliate, a pursuit that has nothing to do with stemming violence, solving crimes, or bettering public safety. In fact, we actually have this recording of Royse County police chief accusing Otto, the man holding the sign, in participating in organized crime. Let’s listen.
Stephen Janis: He’s got case files on him that ain’t even hit yet. I’m telling you, he’s got stuff from there and in other counties that they’re going to try to put together and they’re going to try to get his assessment for organized crime. It’s going to happen. He needs to let it go. You can’t beat the system. If I was him, if I was in his shoes, if I was in his shoes, I would stay far away from Royse City and [inaudible 00:02:27] police officers that I could.
Taya Graham: But of course, the question is, why would Royse Police target auto for holding a sign? And what does it say about American policing that resources that could be used to improve public safety are instead aimed at a single man who wants to hold them accountable? To discuss this, first I’m going to talk to my reporting partner, Stephen Janis, who has reached out to prosecutors to find out why they continue to prosecute this case. Stephen, thank you for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Thanks for having me, Taya. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: Now, Stephen, you talked to prosecutors in Rockwell County, the jurisdiction that handles the cases in Royse City. What did they tell you about why they continue to prosecute Otto’s case?
Stephen Janis: Well, we called, and they told us a whole lot of nothing. Someone put us on hold for 20 minutes and finally came back on the phone and said, “We can’t talk about it,” which I think is unusual. I mean, prosecutors when they take a case this far and for this long, should be accountable to the public and give some reason for spending the resources they’re expending on this particular case. So, so far they’re not talking, and I don’t think that’s an acceptable answer for the media.
Taya Graham: Now, as you were investigating Royse City Police, you came across some interesting data. Can you discuss this data?
Stephen Janis: Well, when I was trying to figure out why Royse was spending so much time on this, I looked at their 911 calls, which actually Otto brought this to my attention. One of their most common 911 call is for suspicious person. In fact, I went through about a month’s worth of calls, which total about 200, and 60 of those calls were roughly suspicious people. So Royse City, a city of 13,000, obviously has some strange issues going on with policing that don’t make any sense, because these calls include alarms and all sorts of stuff. So they’re really nothing seriously criminal here. The only criminal I can see is people calling and reporting other people as suspicious people. So I think it points to the problems that Otto was trying to point out about policing, that there’s something wrong with policing in Royse City in general.
Taya Graham: Stephen, this pattern fits into a concept we think is applicable to this phenomenon that says much about American policing and why auditors like Otto are facing so much pushback. Can you talk about it?
Stephen Janis: Yeah, I think this is a prime example of what we talked about in the show called Social Boundary Policing. In other words, policing, not crime or some sort of catastrophic event, but rather just trying to enforce social boundaries, where one person, for whatever reason, doesn’t like another person or a person of another race or another ethnicity and wants police to police those boundaries. Or just the boundaries of poverty and wealth, because there’s really no explanation for this other than the fact that police are immersed in social boundary policing.
And I think that’s a lot of what auditors are trying to call attention to, that policing in America is not about preventing crime or public safety, it’s about policing social boundaries that are created by wealth inequity and I think racial hostility, stoked by politicians. So I think this is a perfect example of that phenomenon.
Taya Graham: Now we have, in part, an example that shows both how American policing avoids accountability and perhaps why. First, as we see in the response from the prosecutors, they can spend a lot of public money pursuing Otto, as long as they want. They can drag the case on for years without any public accountability. They have the ability to force him back to Texas for hearing after hearing, no matter how petty the charge. And then perhaps we have the why, because it’s cop watchers like Otto, who through auditing the police, have revealed a deeper truism about law enforcement, which police don’t want you to see. And that’s the ugliness of a system that seems more interested in enforcing the aforementioned social boundaries than in fighting crime. It’s part of a trend in American law enforcement that we believe explains much of why people have flooded American streets with protests and why cops are constantly under fire for bad behavior.
I mean, if crime was a priority, then perhaps we wouldn’t have a national clearance rate of 20% on burglaries or here in our own city, we would not have a homicide clearance rate of 30%, meaning 70% of the homicides in Baltimore go unsolved. It’s one of the primary trues that auditors we spoke to have revealed in their work holding police accountable, like Kenneth Dunham being arrested for filming a police car. Or Laura Shark catching a cop literally taking the money from a sex worker in broad daylight. Or guitars Joe Workman arrested on a sidewalk for playing a guitar.
All these cases expose exactly what I’m talking about, one of the real reasons policing is so problematic in this country. And to talk more about this idea, I’m joined by the man at the center of this storm, Otto the Watchdog. Otto, thank you so much for joining us.
Otto the Watchd…: Hey, thank you Taya. It’s always a pleasure to be here.
Taya Graham: Otto, you told Stephen about all these suspicious persons cases in Royse. What’s causing them, and why are they happening?
Otto the Watchd…: Oh my god, let me tell you, it’s Karens. There’s Karens everywhere. And they see something, and they have to say something. But they see something that upsets them a little bit, and the only thing that they know to do is to tell everybody, right? And if nobody listens, then they call the cops. Because the police will listen, the police will respond. And if they encounter something that makes them personally feel just slightly uncomfortable or inconvenienced, they will dial 911 and they will complain about it, and the police will show up.
Taya Graham: Do you think this type of policing is part of why cop watchers like you are encountering so much resistance? Is it coming from the Karens, like you said, or is it the police or maybe it’s a combination of both?
Otto the Watchd…: It’s definitely a combination of both. The police rely on citizens to report crimes and assist them in the detection and apprehension of criminals. But what’s happened is that there’s people who don’t know what crimes are, and honestly, nobody knows what crimes are, including the police. As a matter of fact, if you call the police and ask them if a very specific action is against the law, they can’t tell you or won’t tell you.
And so, nobody will tell you what the law is until you’ve broken it. And then you get punished severely for not knowing the law. Because for you and me, ignorance of the law is no excuse. But if you have a police badge or you work for the city, then you have qualified immunity or absolute immunity in the case of prosecutors. So police officers can absolutely break the law and claim that they didn’t have any knowledge that they were doing and get away with it.
Taya Graham: When Freddie Gray died in our city, ignorance of the law was used as an excuse when the officer didn’t seatbelt Gray in the back of the van, and it resulted in his death. We can’t use that same excuse, right? Regular civilians like us.
Otto the Watchd…: You fail to buckle your child in the backseat, it’s a crime. And I think pretty much everybody knows that you have to wear a seatbelt. It’s on every single sign everywhere to “Click it or ticket.” So the police officers having somebody in handcuffs and can’t protect themselves, it’s their responsibility to buckle him in. But again, like you said, yeah, yeah, they can get away with it because they wrote the rules for themselves, right? The whole system is designed to protect the system.
Taya Graham: Otto, I want to get some sense of your legal ordeals. What are you going through right now? And how is this affecting your life?
Otto the Watchd…: I am currently facing a fight, a big prosecution. The most egregious in my mind, is a felony camping where I was arrested while camping with my children. Ironically, I guess that’s probably why I’m here because the Karen reported that my brown baby may have been kidnapped because obviously, I have a lighter complexion. So yeah, it’s rough.
But people think that they should get to go to court, but [inaudible 00:10:28] you don’t. You get arrested and then you see the magistrate and you post a bond, so that’s money out of your pocket. And if you and you go through a bondsman, you’ll never see the money again. If you want an attorney, that’s going to cost a lot of money. Traveling back and forth to court costs a lot of money. Everything costs a lot of money.
So just to be accused in a land that we’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, can actually bankrupt you. And does, in fact, bankrupt most people. The system will bankrupt the poor people. Well, the people who can’t afford to go through the process, just get run over. And then the middle class who can afford it, will bankrupt themselves, take loans out on their house, sell a vehicle, that kind of stuff. Cut back on, whatever it is, and this is all before you’ve been convicted of anything.
Taya Graham: Otto, how much do you think these legal issues are the result of your work as a cop watcher? How much of this is retaliation?
Otto the Watchd…: Oh personally, I think that all of it is because it started out as giving away potatoes and then before you knew it, I had felony charges. I have no convictions. I’ve never been a criminal at all. And as a matter of fact, I’ve yet to be actually be accused of doing anything. No one has accused me of doing anything at all. My first arrest was for having written on a sign and saying the word. The second arrest was because a Karen called the police to check on a brown baby. So you don’t have to do anything to be arrested and face these charges. You can literally be sleeping in your bed and be shot. The police get all kinds of leniency. And yeah, they say that you’re innocent until proven guilty, but I see no evidence of that existing.
Taya Graham: It’s interesting that, Otto, you evoke the phenomenon known as Karens; generally white women who call the police on innocent African Americans for otherwise unremarkable encounters. I think the explosion of Karen incidents proves a point we were trying to make at the beginning of the show. For those with inordinate social power, policing is a tool to enforce it. For the privileged, cops are just an extension of the walls and buffers that allow wealth to concentrate for the rich to get richer, while the rest of us lose jobs and health insurance, basically the glue that holds the inequities of capitalism together.
I mean, think about what we recently witnessed in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the brutal shooting of Jacob Blake. In this case, Blake was allegedly trying to break up a fight. And when police arrived, they arrived and tried to tase him. And then they shot him seven times. But this tragic shooting wasn’t just fodder for another disturbing video that’s gone viral and prompted calls for an arrest. It was also the latest in a long string of police involved deaths, the results of minor calls or car stops.
In this case, Blake might’ve just been trying to intervene in a fight, just like countless other calls have led to death, like Philandro Castiel, who was shot and killed over a broken tail light in a Minneapolis suburb, or George Floyd, killed over an alleged counterfeit bill or Eric Garner, murdered over the act of selling loose cigarettes for change. The point is, there are a multitude of reasons basic policing results in irrational and deadly ends. But at least one of them, is how essential law enforcement is to enforcing boundaries.
And as we said before, this task is so difficult because so much is at stake. That’s because on the other side of the transom, on the other side of that wall, lies a more just society where healthcare is a human right. Not the world we currently live in, where during a pandemic, 12 billionaires accrue more wealth than the rest of the country. Or where 30 million people lose health insurance while the federal government fights in court to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which would leave millions more without access to a doctor.
And that’s the point; historic wealth inequality cannot be enforced solely with persuasion. Over time, as cumulative injustice grows, inequality must find more forceful weapons to maintain its existential imbalance. And unfortunately, oftentimes, that tool is a cop with a badge. The question is, what can we do to keep that power in check?
I want to thank my guest, Otto the Watchdog, for his time and his tireless fight to protect the First Amendment. Thank you, Otto.
Otto the Watchd…: Hey thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here and keep up the fight.
Taya Graham: And of course, I have to thank intrepid journalist, Stephen Janis, for his investigative work, his help editing and writing. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And I would be remiss if I did not thank friend of the show, Noli D, 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. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at parattherealnews.com, and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or at Eyes on Police on Twitter. Or of course, you can message me directly at Taya’s Baltimore on Twitter or Facebook.
And please like and comment, it really helps. And of course, I do read your comments, appreciate them, and I try to answer your questions whenever I can. My name is Taya Graham, and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.
Stephen Janis is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has been acclaimed both in print and on television. As the Senior Investigative Reporter for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner, he...
More by Stephen Janis