The Harford County Sheriff’s Office is conducting an administrative investigation after a deputy arrested and pointed his stun gun at a New York man filming a traffic stop in Joppa last week.
The arresting officer, Senior Deputy Keith Jackson, said in charging documents that the man approached the officers from behind the scene, his manner was confrontational and that his presence caused him and another deputy to divert their attention from the initial traffic stop.
SeanPaul Reyes, who identifies himself as a “First Amendment auditor,” says he was exercising his rights and filming the deputies, just as he’s done elsewhere for the past two months, in an effort to hold police accountable.
Reyes, 30, of Coram, New York, is charged with obstructing and hindering, according to court documents. He was released on his own recognizance and a trial is scheduled for July 21, according to electronic court records.
The Harford sheriff’s office posted body camera footage from the May 4 incident on its Facebook page. The footage shows Reyes approaching police officers during a traffic stop in the 500 block of Pulaski Highway at around 10:30 p.m. and filming them from a sidewalk with his smartphone, and his exchange with Jackson.
Jackson asks what Reyes wants and tells him to back away from the traffic stop as Reyes walks closer. Reyes, who posted his video of the exchange on his YouTube page, says he is on a public sidewalk. Jackson instructs him to back up several times before pointing his stun gun at Reyes, who takes a few steps backward. Jackson says Reyes is interrupting the traffic stop while Reyes maintains he has a right to film the police.
After some argument, Jackson tells Reyes to put his hands behind his back and that he is under arrest.
Then two deputies handcuff Reyes and seat him on the curb. Jackson says Reyes was approaching the scene from the rear and that he could have filmed from another location instead of walking up close behind the police cars. Jackson tells Reyes he unholstered his stun gun because Reyes would not stop moving toward him.
“We will allow you to video; I do not care if you are standing over in that parking lot there where I can see you,” Jackson says. “As soon as we do a traffic stop or any other type of investigation, we drop a bubble on the area we are in. You are not walking up behind me.”
As he sits on the curb, Reyes and the deputy argue back and forth about what happened. Reyes apologizes and asks to leave while Jackson says that Reyes took his attention away from the traffic stop and was acting confrontational.
“How about you let me go on my way,” Reyes begins.
“No, nope, you are going to jail,” Jackson responds.
In a phone interview Monday, Reyes said he was visiting family in the area and stopped at the 7-Eleven for food when he saw the traffic stop and decided to film it as an exercise of his rights — just to remind police he can do so.
“Our rights are like muscles, if we’re not exercising them, they’re going to wither away over time,” he said.
He did not plan to speak to the deputies or the person who was stopped when he walked over, Reyes said, adding that he’s never been arrested for filming the police and his goal is to hold them accountable. Reyes is a supporter of the police, he said, but plans to take every action he can to hold them accountable. He has an attorney, although he declined to give the attorney’s name, and will file a civil lawsuit when the time is appropriate, he said.
“If the police officer would’ve handled that situation differently, it would have been a totally different outcome,” Reyes said. “This was not a planned thing.”
In a Facebook message posted with footage from Jackson’s body camera, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said he authorized a policy issuing guidance on filming and photographing of deputies in 2018.
The policy states that officers cannot restrict citizens from filming them in the public domain “as long as their location, action or behavior does not “create a legitimate, articulable threat to officer safety or the safety of others, or an unlawful hindrance to successful resolution of the law enforcement activity.”
The results of the administrative investigation will be released when it is complete, Gahler said in his post.
Through a sheriff’s office spokesperson, Gahler said Monday that he would not immediately speak further on the issue because the investigation is ongoing.
Speaking generally about the sheriff’s office’s policies and training, Harford County Sheriff’s Maj. Lee Dunbar explained that deputies are trained on evidence collection and crime scene management at the academy. Deputies are given latitude to determine how much space a scene can cover; there is no hard-and-fast size, Dunbar said. Particularly with traffic stops, the size of a scene can be fluid, depending on whether the road has a shoulder and how busy the roadway is.
Deputies are accustomed to being filmed while on the job and ask that people listen to their instructions for everyone’s safety, Dunbar said. Because management of crime scenes and traffic stops differs from case to case, deputies may ask people to move back, which most do, he said.
“It is rather simple; if they come on a crime scene or investigation, they can definitely film — we have no issue with that,” Dunbar said. “The advice we give to citizens is just follow the direction of deputies or the supervisors at the scene.”
Deputies’ use of force is also guided by the standard of objective reasonability — whether what deputies know at the time merits a forceful response, Dunbar said. Deputies can unholster their weapons if they believe there is a potential for harm or a known danger. Less than lethal methods like stun guns or chemical sprays are also usable at deputies’ discretion under the same standard of reasonability.
David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said based on the body camera video, Reyes’ actions did not constitute hindering and the sheriff’s deputy was not justified in pointing a stun gun at him.
Key to hindering, Rocah said, is having an intent to impede police duties, which Reyes appeared to lack.
“The answer to that question seems pretty clear,” Rocah said. “All he wanted to do was film the officer.”
Beyond that, Rocah said Jackson’s actions appeared unjustified because Reyes simply approached the scene to film — a well-established right — and stood by watching the stop unfold.
“What the officer was saying is ‘I’m going to cause you excruciating pain unless you do what I say,’” Rocah said. “Here, it’s not objectively reasonable because the bystander had done nothing to warrant any use of force, period.”
The body camera footage attracted over 2,000 comments on the sheriff’s office’s Facebook page — ranging from profane to supportive. Reyes also posted several videos to YouTube, which have been viewed tens of thousands of times. In one of those videos, he files a complaint against Jackson at the sheriff’s office’s headquarters in Bel Air.
It is not unusual for bystanders to film the police, but Reyes’ said his filming falls under the umbrella of “first amendment auditing,” where citizens film government officials and police.
Reyes acknowledged that some auditors do seek out confrontation with officials, but he did not wish to do so in this case.
“I believe that’s in the minority of what’s out there,” he said. “For the majority of us, we really believe what we do.”
Filming police increases public trust of law enforcement agencies, he said, which can help repair relationships between them and those they serve.
The Harford Sheriff’s Office currently only has 10 deputies equipped with body cameras, holdovers from the sheriff’s office’s pilot program that began approximately four years ago.
In the coming fiscal year’s budget, County Executive Barry Glassman has committed to funding body cameras for the agency, which are estimated to cost approximately $2.7 million over the next five years. The office aims to have a body camera program, with 600 camera for 300 deputies, fully operational sometime by November and the end of the year.
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The sheriff’s office was mandated by the state to adopt body cameras by 2023, but Glassman said included funding for them in this year’s proposed budget to stay ahead of the deadline.