After a Sixth Street fracas early Sunday turned into a near panic when gunshots rang out in the crowded bar district, police received help from an unlikely source: a video watchdog who keeps tabs on cops.
Austin Community College student Phillip Turner, 26, records police activity for the accountability news site Photography is Not a Crime. But on Sunday, he used his footage to direct police towards a man he saw grip what appeared to be a handgun during a fight downtown on the final night of the South by Southwest Music festival.
That Turner ended up using the footage to help cops catch a bad guy instead of catching cops doing bad was something he said was somewhat ironic.
“Police officers — not all, but generally — do not like being recorded,” Turner told the American-Statesman. “In this case, my film helped them get a guy off the streets.”
No one was hurt, and the incident ultimately led to the arrest of two people accused of illegally carrying firearms, police said. But it did cause a brief panic in the area, with people diving for cover, running and screaming while police moved in to find suspects.
In the aftermath, police appeared to have a man detained. That’s when Turner approached the officers.
“They had the wrong guy,” Turner said. “I told them the guy was wearing a blue jacket and showed them the video.”
Minutes later, Turner was showing the video to multiple officers, projecting it on the wall of a darkened police van. One officer took cellphone photos of a still made from Turner’s footage that Turner presumed was sent to other officers in the area. Officers arrested Justin Brunson, 20, and his cousin, Rondarius Spicer, 22. Police say Spicer was the man who fired into the air in the crowded street and charged him also with deadly conduct, an arrest affidavit said.
Detective Jason Chiappardi said he was “very thankful” for Turner’s contribution.
“Without his help, we would not have been able to take two dangerous people off the street,” Chiappardi said. “With Mr. Turner’s help we were able to continue to keep Austin safe.”
But cops and the accountability activists who film them often become adversaries. Even Turner is still involved in litigation with police in Round Rock and Fort Worth over his interactions with officers. In Round Rock, an officer arrested him in July 2015 and charged him with failure to identify after the officer said he found Turner’s video recording outside the police headquarters suspicious.
Last week, a video taken of an Austin police officer using pepper spray on a man sitting in a police van led to police launching an internal affairs investigation.
Turner, who has been filming police for more than two years and posting videos on a YouTube channel, said using video to help police and to hold them accountable serves a single purpose.
“I’m for justice, that is the overall goal of this: justice for all, transparency, equal for both police and citizens,” he said. “The goal is to provide a service to the community and that is what I believe I did.”