An Austin civil rights activist says he was illegally arrested by the Galveston Police Department on Wednesday evening.
Phillip Turner, 25, of Austin was arrested outside the Galveston police station at 5:10 p.m.
Turner was at the police station conducting what he called a “First Amendment audit,” a test of local police officers’ knowledge of laws regarding the right to film law enforcement.
The police department failed that audit, Turner said, when they arrested him, charged him with failing to identify himself to police officers and then held him in custody for 16 hours.
“It’s OK for the officer to ask questions, but he can’t demand it,” Turner said.
Turner said that he and a friend arrived at the Galveston police station just before 5 p.m. on Wednesday. After about 15 minutes, four Galveston police officers confronted him, asked him what he was doing and told him to identify himself.
Turner refused, was handcuffed and brought to the nearby jail.
Acting Police Chief David Smith confirmed Turner’s arrest on Thursday morning after the incident had already been written about on the First Amendments rights website, photographyisnotacrime.com.
Turner was arrested not because he was filming, but because officers were suspicious of his motives, Smith said.
In a video of the arrest, taken by Turner’s friend and posted on YouTube, Galveston police officers repeatedly ask if Turner was filming license plates around the police station lot.
After he was handcuffed, the officers turned off the camera that Turner was using to film the building.
Turner is a correspondent for photographyisnotacrime.com, which is dedicated to monitoring acts of police censorship. He also manages a YouTube page, The Battousai, where he has posted more than 100 videos of him and police officers.
Wednesday is not the first time he has been arrested after filming outside a Texas police station. In September, he was arrested after police found him filming outside the Fort Worth Police Department.
In October, Turner filed a lawsuit against the Round Rock Police Department, whose officers arrested Turner in July 2014 for failing to identify himself. In the lawsuit, Turner claimed his Fourth Amendment rights were violated.
Turner said that he’s had similar experiences in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. Earlier on Wednesday, he had filmed outside the League City and Texas City police departments without incident, he said.
“I’m noticing that officers aren’t really trained to ask for ID, or they just don’t really care,” Turner said.
It is not illegal to film police officers or police facilities from a public street in Texas.
According to Texas law, failure to identify to police is a crime if a person “intentionally refuses to give his name, residence address, or date of birth to a peace officer who has lawfully arrested the person and requested the information.”
Smith said the only crime Turner was charged with was his failure to identify. He acknowledged that Turner had the right to film from public property.
“The officer’s concern is that it was suspicious,” Smith said, mentioning threats that had been made against police officers in other parts of the country. Smith said the officer was concerned Turner was filming identifying information, such as license plates.
No threats have been made specifically against the Galveston Police Department, Smith said.
Mickey Osterreicher, an attorney and the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said that if no other crime occurred, the police erred in arresting Turner.
“If you are in a public place where you have a legal right to be, the police have to have probable cause to believe that you are committing a crime,” Osterreicher said. “If you’re doing nothing other than taking pictures, that in itself is a First Amendment protected right and does not constitute a crime.”
The police department released a statement Thursday afternoon claiming that Turner was “recording vehicle license plates and law enforcement building.”
“The officer was concerned that the individual was recording law enforcement personnel movements and structures to plan future harm; therefore, he detained the individual and attempted to identify him,” city spokesman Michael Gray said in the media release.
Turner denied he was filming license plates or doing anything to threaten the safety of the police officers.
Smith said the department’s phones had been inundated with phone calls about Turner’s arrest since it was first written about on photographyisnotacrime.com
On Thursday evening, Turner said he intended to return to Galveston to contest the charges against him and to continue to testing police departments.
“My camera is my protest sign,” he said.