What would cause a former cop to cross the thin blue line and use his camera to monitor law enforcement and hold police accountable? For well-known police auditor James Madison, it was a fraught encounter with a police officer who threatened to falsely arrest him on his own property for filming him.
In this week’s PAR, we speak to Madison about his conversion from cop to cop watcher, and about the deep issues that plague law enforcement.
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. 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. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at a phenomenon we’ve examined on the show before: auditing and cop watching. But this cop watcher has a unique perspective, because he’s a former cop.
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. You can also message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook or Twitter, and please share and comment on our videos. It really helps us.
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Now, as you know, if you’ve watched the show before, we have continued to follow a growing phenomenon called “cop watching” or “auditing.” It’s an organic movement of citizen journalists who pick up cell phone cameras and observe police or survey buildings to ensure our elected leaders are protecting the rights of the people. That’s why we were in Denver when Eric Brandt was sentenced to 12 years in prison for threatening speech, and why we continue to check in with auditors like Blind Justice, Otto the Watchdog, Pajama Audits, John Filax, James Freeman, and LackLuster. But the auditor we’re going to speak to today not just caught our attention because of the work he’s doing behind the camera, but because of his backstory.
His name is James Madison, or James Madison Audits, and he has used his camera and YouTube channel to fight back against police overreach for years. But what makes his story even more interesting is the path James followed to become a cop watcher. James is not just a popular auditor. He’s a former cop, a man who sees the other side of policing up close, and is willing to discuss what happens behind the blue line candidly and critically. It’s a sense of openness that is not only rare in law enforcement, but we also say is necessary. What I mean is that having someone who wore the badge criticize it is the kind of insight we need to help hold police truly accountable. And what’s particularly interesting about James’ conversion from cop to cop watcher is how he decided to pick up a camera and fight back. It all started with this video, an encounter with a cop from his own front yard, that changed his attitude and prompted him to embrace activism full stop. Let’s watch, and as we do, I’ll let James explain what happened.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
James Madison: Due to those disputes. Officer Fischetti came onto our property to address a civil complaint from the neighbor, which means no crime. The recording began where my wife is holding the camera, and Officer Fischetti was so set on that it was unlawful to record police, even though he was recording with a hidden audio device. Officer Fischetti will effect an arrest, which means he arrested me without handcuffs, by saying, “Turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
Officer: Okay, well now we got to put that away.
James Madison: No, sir. We don’t.
James Madison: No, we don’t. What property are you standing on, officer?
Officer: Right here.
James Madison: Where is this?
Officer: Right here where I’m standing.
James Madison: What address is it?
Officer: Okay, well, I don’t want you recording this, and it’s against law to record this.
James Madison: It’s against the law for you to record me, and your recording’s on right now.
Officer: Okay. You ready to go to jail then?
James Madison: If you want me to go to jail, when are we going to go to jail? I will shut it off.
Speaker: Tell us –
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: As you can see, James Madison was confronted with the very same threat that many of our other cop watchers encounter: jail time. But since that encounter, James has fought back like so many others, brandishing his camera and recording police to hold them accountable. By monitoring cops for bad behavior while bringing his own unique inside view of policing to bear, James has become a popular cop watcher who’s made some very important videos. Before I speak to him more in depth about what he does, I’m joined by my reporting partner, Stephen Janis, to discuss how cops who become whistleblowers can help journalists, and vice versa, to reveal truisms about policing that might not otherwise be known. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: Stephen, I think one of the best known examples of a famous police whistleblower was Frank Serpico. Can you talk about what he did and what happened to him?
Stephen Janis: Yep. Frank Serpico was a New York City cop who refused to take bribes. Basically, at that point, the entire New York City Police Department was on the take, and Frank Serpico refused to take the money. It cost him personally. He was shot and almost died, but what happened was they started a commission called the Knapp Commission, which investigated police corruption, and determined that the entire police department was basically a bribery racket. It was harrowing for him, but also very necessary for the public.
Taya Graham: But Stephen, you have a lot of experience with cops, sharing their stories and you writing about it, right?
Stephen Janis: Yeah. One of the first books I ever wrote, called Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore, was with a former Baltimore City homicide detective in 2011. Among other things, he reveals that police were stealing from crime scenes, that homicide detectives were extending cases instead of making arrests, but, of course, the department ignored it. Then we had the 2015 Freddie Gray dying in police custody, and then the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, so even though we revealed these things, it didn’t really have an impact, although I think at this time we were trying to do some of the same work that Serpico did.
Taya Graham: And what about your book You Can’t Stop Murder? What did that cover?
Stephen Janis: Well, Taya, this book was written with a detective who was much older for cases back in the 1970s, and much of it had to do with police corruption. One of the cases we wrote about was a massive gambling sting that caught police officers gambling, taking receipts from gambling, basically very similar to New York in the 1970s. The whole case vanished when the evidence vanished in the evidence locker. There was another case where officers were accused of stealing 1,000 grams of heroin, and that case, too, vanished. So you can see in the ’70s, just like with Serpico, police corruption was really starting to come to the fore, but nobody was doing anything about it here in Baltimore. And look what happened.
And now I’m joined by the former cop turned auditor, James Madison. James, thank you for joining me.
James Madison: Thank you. I’ve watched your videos, I see the work that you put in, so it’s pretty awesome. A few of my viewers have told me a bunch. “You need to get an interview with her,” “Get an interview with them,” and let’s do that. I was like, “All right,” so now we’re here. We’re finally here.
Taya Graham: First, tell me a little bit about your career as a police officer and why you left. And what do you think is wrong with American policing?
James Madison: It started right out of high school, when I was 19 years old. Jumped into law enforcement there, went to the basic law enforcement academy, picked a department near my hometown here, and decided to go into it. My grandfather worked for DOT, and he’s like, “Get a good job with the government. Good benefits, good retirement, and things like that,” so I was like, “Yeah, let me try it.” Then about, I would say three years into it, I started to realize that it wasn’t for me. I did stick it out so that I could vest and collect my retirement. It’s just a negative environment.
Taya Graham: How do you define being a cop watcher or auditor, and why did you become one?
James Madison: If I define it… When I had an audit from the Florida Department of Revenue, which was miserable if you ever have any audit from the IRS, they come in and check everything. They make sure that you did everything right. A lot of people will coin that term as an auditor. We’re just going out there checking, whether it be a First Amendment, Second Amendment, Fourth Amendment rights violation, and even Fifth Amendment. You can do a Fifth Amendment check, too. If you want to remain silent and have a cop berate you, then he’s failing that Fifth Amendment right there. Even if he says to you, “Well, if you’re innocent, you would tell me,” that’s violating your Fifth Amendment right, right there.
Defining all that is just going out there and checking and seeing what they’re doing, if they’re doing it right, because a lot of law enforcement will tell you it’s a big statute book. There’s a lot of stuff that you can do, and we can get you on nearly anything. Well, it’s also a big policy book, so we can check and make sure you’re doing it right. They have policy, law, and Constitution, which is kind of moot for most of them, because they don’t really care. Some do, but most don’t.
What actually got me started in auditing is, there’s an officer in my hometown. His name is Officer Fischetti, and he is a police officer here. I think he’s still there. I don’t know. But we were having a neighbor dispute, and he came to my house, and I document everything. We have security cameras outside just like everybody does. It’s nothing special. But at this time, my wife was holding the camera.
He came onto my property well beyond the right of ways and all that, and I was telling him what my neighbor did. Well, when I was telling him what my neighbor did, I say also we’re recording this here, because we’re going to eventually sue my neighbor for what he’s doing here, just constantly aggravating us for a remodel that we were doing. Once I did that, he told me, “Well, if you record me, I’m going to take you to jail.” There is a video about that. I recorded it. And I said, “Wow, all right. Well, I’m going to record you.” He then said… What’d he say? He said, “Turn around and put your hands behind your back.” That’s effecting an arrest, no matter what state you’re in. When someone does that, a law enforcement officer made an arrest, whether he puts handcuffs on you or not, by citing that to you and saying, “Turn around and put your hands behind your back.” That is effecting arrest.
But the weird thing is, my wife was the one holding the phone, not me. That’s what got me started right there. That man in my front yard telling me that I’m going to go to jail for filming him, well after Smith v. Cumming was established in the courts, well after the First Amendment was established, and well after many, many times that it was legal and lawful to film the police.
Taya Graham: Why do so many auditors refuse to give their IDs? Is that an important way to test a police department? How do you respond to people who say what’s the big deal about giving your ID or answering questions?
James Madison: It’s the basic test, because police have, what, three types of encounters. They have a consensual encounter, then they have a custodial detention and then they have an arrest. They have those three types of encounters. If it’s consensual, then you need to know about that, and you don’t need to submit to a Fourth Amendment search. Even though it’s not a pat down, it’s still seizing your papers and property. It’s taking your information. They’re going to put you in some type of a database, like they have me. It says that I’d rather film police, and it’s just a silly database. Then they can share that with other law enforcement like that. Which, again, it’s not that big of a deal, but the fundamentals of it are we have rights not to submit things to law enforcement because they’re not there to say hi to us and be friends to us, like when they put them in the elementary schools and do that.
When they’re there, they’re conducting an investigation, and the less that they have, the better off it is, no matter who you are, if you’re a suspect in the crime. Now, if you’re a victim, that’s a little bit different. But if you’re a suspect in a crime, you don’t want to give them anything, because if you look at the way the statutes in almost all of the states work, you have to be committing a crime, about to be committing a crime, or already have committed a crime in order to be ID’d. Now, there’s some states that only require you to submit once you’ve been arrested, but those are all essentially after you’ve committed a crime, about to commit a crime, or going to. That’s it. And law enforcement don’t need to know anything about you other than that. Period.
Taya Graham: Why do you think police behave in a way that seems like their power is unlimited? What makes them so entitled? Why do they act as if their power is unchecked?
James Madison: There’s no why about it. Their power is unlimited and unchecked, that’s it. Period. All right. It’s just that. They don’t have anybody that they have to answer to. The law enforcement don’t have any accountability. They do when a citizen complains and makes a really big stink about something, but as I mentioned, I will go out, and I will go out with a tint meter and check officers’ tint on their cars. In Florida, the police cars are not exempt, and I go up and just say, “Hey, listen. Due to my training experience, your vehicle looks a little bit dark.” Some of them will let me check it, some of them don’t, but the ones that I do check mostly are in violation. When I tell them that, they’re like, “Well, I didn’t put the tint on here. The department did.”
Well, we don’t have that ability to say something like that. Even if we buy it from the dealership like that, then the dealership says, “All right, this is your car now.” It’s that. The police say, “Well, this is your car. You’re driving it, you’re in constructive possession or actual possession of this vehicle, and here’s your citation for it.” And that goes all the way through nearly to everything. They have unlimited power and unlimited access to do whatever they want. Police departments are one of the most highest-funded departments, besides the Department of Education, in any government. They get the most money. You think about that. They have the most money. He who has the most money, has the most power. Period.
Taya Graham: I’ve seen excessive arrests for minor crimes in my city of Baltimore. For example, there were over 100,000 arrests a year, and it was a policy called “zero tolerance,” and now there’ve been an extreme increase of arrests in rural America, especially in lower income areas. What role do you think police play in inequality, and how do they enforce the social boundaries of poverty?
James Madison: There’s so many idioms that you can think of. Low hanging fruit, the weakest in the pack. That’s exactly what I think is happening. If they stop me and they want to do something, they’ll know that I’m going to fight it. They know that I’m going to have an attorney that fights it. Yeah, they might put something cheesy on me, but a lot of the times what happens for the people that have lower income, or lower education, or something along those lines, unless they’re really, really hurt bad or they’re injured traumatically, they can’t afford an attorney to go out there and fight their case for them. So what do you think’s going to happen?
They’re going to say, “All right, we’ll pay the fine,” “We’ll do it,” “I just need time to pay this fine, your honor. I don’t have a job right now.” “Okay. Well, we’ll give you 90 days to come up with the money.” And they’re going to go ask a family member to do it, because they don’t want to go to jail and see them go to jail, so someone else is going to hop in.
When you talk about inequalities like that and how it’s exploiting… I just did a little video, it’s not really an in-depth video, about PayTel. PayTel is a company that you got to put $10 in to talk to someone in jail. You can talk to them for five minutes, and then you don’t get any of your money back. That company is making major profits. They’ve got big companies like that, so they’re getting that, “I have to contact him because I want to be able to get him out of jail.”
It was Soleaker. He’s a guy that does Second Amendment. When I went to pick him up for jail, he had $40 on him. When he left, he had $20 on him, and they took that money without any ability for him to protest it or anything like that, and says, “Well, this is your daily state money, like your lunch money and something like that,” and took the money and it was gone. That was out of Brevard County. That’s just their policy. They took $20 per day or whatever it is from him for amenities or something along those lines. I’m paraphrasing. I don’t know exactly what it was, but what he told me is he was missing $20 and they justified it with food or lunch, and why he was there.
Taya Graham: What would you like to see change policy-wise in law enforcement? What do you think would really help the public and even help police do their job more effectively?
James Madison: They need to hire people that are not out there lifting weights and being a quasi-military badass. Simple as that. They need to hire people that know how to talk to people. They need to hire people that know how to deescalate, and they need to hire people that can communicate well with someone and understand what someone’s going through, rather than on the calls where someone’s distressed and they might have a weapon, or something along those lines, they don’t need to go in there and order someone, “Drop it, now! Do it now!” because that person is hanging by a thread, and they don’t care about anything. They need to bring that back down. They need to talk about something.
Honestly, I always talk to my viewers about defunding the police. That is something that needs to be done, and it doesn’t need to be… take away what they have currently. It is stop giving them things. I think it’s $200,000 in drones that our local sheriff got, and I don’t know why they need $200,000 of drones. They have X amount of officers on there and four supervisors per shift. If I can do the math properly, I don’t think you need that many drones. You can have each one of those officers have one, and I could probably pay for it myself. Defunding, when I talk about that, they need to bring down what they have the ability to obtain. The technology that they have, $5,000 worth of license plate readers on nearly every intersection, that’s where you got to start defunding the police, saying, “Yes, we could be out there maybe just checking each one of the tags. We want the technology to be able to do it.” But at the same time, defunding is not taking away what they currently have. It’s just stopping what they keep spending and spending and spending and spending on.
Taya Graham: If you could educate the public about one thing in relation to their rights, what would you want them to know? What do you want your YouTube channel to teach people?
James Madison: Well, the fundamentals, [Amendments] One through Five. One, you can do and say pretty much what you want, as long as there’s no threats attached to it. Two, you can protect yourself and carry your own firearms, because police take anywhere from 12 to 15 minutes to get to you. When they say that we need the police to protect us, it’s very rarely that they actually protect you in a life or death situation. Three, we really don’t have that much, but when officers come into your home and they want to set up there and just kind of crash. It’s happened a couple of times where offers come into homes and just kind of take over the home. That’s one, but primarily the Fourth Amendment is it.
You don’t have to consent to a search. Take the citation. Officers may let you off if you let them search, but that is the game that they’ll play like that. Going into the Fifth Amendment, we really don’t need to talk to the police, and you need to search your rights when you’re doing that. Now, one of the things with the First Amendment, when I go back through that, is make sure that you film law enforcement, no matter what they’re doing.
If you see them on the side of the road and you have a couple minutes, throw the camera on them. Just make sure, because they have cameras on us everywhere. I’m talking about every intersection. If you look up at these streetlights, film it. Film that, film your traffic stops. If you have to go into the police department, film it. Make sure it’s legal and lawful in your town, just in case they have some weird ordinance or something along those lines. But from what I know, you can film anywhere in public in the United States, and I don’t know where there isn’t, a place that’s like that.
Taya Graham: Certainly, we’ve seen numbers across the country touting the rise in shootings and murder, and we have seen the mainstream media posit the increased violence as justification for more, not less, police. But perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions. Maybe as Stephen discusses in his books, policing has little to do with solving crimes or public safety. Instead, as his book suggests, police sometimes serve as an extension of bad policies of state power that seek to enforce both the economic and racial inequity that results from it.
Well, what do I mean? Consider this video shot in our home state of Maryland. It shows officers on the boardwalk of Ocean City, a popular tourist destination, using brutal force after two Black teenagers were accused of vaping. That’s right. The brutal takedown and tasing of these teenagers seen here was over nothing more than taking a drag of vaporized nicotine. As you can see, the teens were not accused of violent crimes, injuring others, or any of the things that we would think would result in this sort of police reaction. Kneeing someone in the stomach over a vape is not just ridiculous. It’s revealing the true imperative of American policing, as we’ve said before, which is fabricating disorder.
But the reason I bring this incident up is not just because it’s a shocking example of police overreach, or because it shows how drastically laws are enforced against people of color. No, the reason I’m raising this incident is because it displays, for all of us to see, the extreme disregard police have for the people they serve. It’s a prime example of how the power of law enforcement has become beholden only to itself. State-sponsored violence is one of the most troubling and potentially devastating forms of government power. When the government gives somebody full license to inflict bodily harm or death, the levers for accountability for those actions simply vanish.
How else can we explain what we see in this video? And how else can we even try to understand the dozens of videos we’ve shared on this channel, if not for the fact that the police feel fully empowered to hurt us? [They] have little fear of reprisal if they do.
The point is, the reason we produce the show is not just to show these videos, but explain the implications. The reasons we speak to people like James Madison, it’s not just to highlight their work, but to understand why it’s important that they do what they do. That’s why I always state the purpose of the show from the onset, why we make clear our job is not just holding bad cops accountable, but examining the system which bolsters them.
That’s what we did today, because in the experience of James Madison and the cops on the beach, on the boardwalk, we see the system at work, a system that puts profit over people and turns the law into a tool to do so. A system that prioritizes punishment over productivity and conspires to profit off the suffering it inflicts.
Which is why I make this promise to you. We won’t stop watching, we won’t stop reporting, so long as this injustice afflicts the many for the enrichment and satisfaction of the few. I’d like to thank our guest, cop watcher James Madison, for joining us today. Thank you. And of course, I have to thank Stephen Janis for his writing, research, his editing, and his intrepid reporting on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And of course I want to thank friend of the show Noli Dee for her support. Thanks Noli Dee. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us @policeaccountabilityreport on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. And, Of course, you can always message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook, and please like and comment. Of course, I do read your comments and appreciate them, and I try to answer your questions whenever I can. If you stuck around to the very end, maybe you want to donate to our Patreon link pinned below. I hope you do. My name is Taya Graham, and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.