“First Amendment auditing” and its close cousin, “copwatching,” dates from at least the mid-2000s and possibly much earlier (some filmers say they draw inspiration from the civil rights era and early audits carried out with camcorders and VHS tapes). Recently, the practice has morphed into a YouTube subculture, with self-styled “auditors” in many major U.S. cities roaming into suburbs and small towns to see how police react to a camera lens. The photographers consider themselves to be testing their constitutional rights.
In the practice’s purest form, an auditor simply stands in a public space and films and refuses to put the camera down, explain or identify herself or himself when an officer approaches. Perez said she first came across the Los Angeles area community a couple of years ago and felt compelled to create her own videos. “It’s not only about shining a light on the crooked bad cops but shining an even brighter light on the good cops,” she said. “You put yourself in places where you know chances are the cops are going to be called. Are they going to uphold the constitution, uphold the law … or break the law?”
On Thursday, Perez filmed outside the Etz Jacob Congregation and Ohel Chana High School in the historically Jewish Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles. Two videos were broadcast live on the Furry Potato YouTube channel, though one appears to have since been deleted. There are brief graphic moments in the second live stream around the four-minute and 37-minute marks, as Perez appears to have been shot and later films her injury from an ambulance.
Perez, who is 45 and a transgender woman, told The Washington Post she initially began filming the synagogue because she was intrigued by the architecture as she walked back from a doctor’s appointment at nearby Cedars-Sinai hospital. “I saw the synagogue, and I said I’m going to go check it out. It’s got a lot of neat stuff on it, like the stained glass windows,” she said. It did not turn into an audit-like situation until the security guard confronted her, she said.
“It turned into an impromptu First Amendment audit because the security guard almost immediately was getting really aggressive with the filming and putting the hand on the gun,” Perez said. At the time, she said, she did not realize the building also housed a school.
Perez also said she was not aware of last year’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, in which 11 worshipers were killed by a gunman with anti-Semitic views during Saturday morning services. The massacre put the country’s Jewish community on edge. Many Jewish institutions such as schools and synagogues have some form of security in the event of a threat, and some increased security after the Pittsburgh violence.
The Los Angeles Police Department said in a brief release that officers responded to a call on Thursday to a disturbance that was later upgraded to a “shooting just occurred.” At the scene, officers found a person with a gunshot wound to the leg and transported the person to the hospital. The statement said the security guard was armed and later detained.
Norma Eisenman, a Los Angeles police officer, confirmed to The Post that the guard, Edduin Zelayagrunfeld, 44, had been arrested. She said Perez had not been charged.
The second live-streamed video shows the shooting and some of the events that led to it.
It begins with the synagogue’s security guard standing behind a gate, holding his gun. Perez repeatedly zooms in on the gun as commenters react in real time to the confrontation with messages ranging from “Be careful, girl!” to “Those Jews are crazy!”
“He told me he’s going to shoot me dead,” Perez narrates about two minutes into the stream. “He said if I move he’s going to shoot me dead."
“Why are you recording us?” Zelayagrunfeld asks, still holding the gun. “Why are you recording me? Why are you recording this institution?” Perez does not answer the guard but tells her live-stream viewers once again, “He’s said he’s going to shoot me if I move.”
Four minutes in, he does.
The video appears to show Zelayagrunfeld pointing his gun low, possibly at the ground. There’s a bang, and a second later Perez shouts as the camera swings to the sidewalk. As Perez shouts in agony, “The [expletive] shot me!” Zelayagrunfeld can be heard yelling “get away” before coming out of the gate to berate Perez, saying he had fired a “warning shot."
Bystanders appear to help Perez, while Zelayagrunfeld momentarily follows and insists that he “shot at the floor.” About 12 minutes in, police officers arrive to assist Perez but, according to Perez’s narration, also appear to detain her. “I get shot and I’m going in handcuffs?” Perez asks. “Everything’s live-streamed; 100 percent of it’s live-streamed,” she tells the officers, and declines to provide her name. The camera’s lens is obscured or pointed low to the ground for most of the encounter with police.
In the final moments of the nearly 40-minute stream, Perez, in an ambulance, turns the camera on her wounded leg. She tells her viewers she’s heading to the hospital. She later told KCAL 9 News that “the doctor said it was a graze.”
“This is not only an example of the paranoia in this country among cops and security guards when it comes to citizens with cameras but an example of the dangers of placing armed security guards and cops in schools,” said Carlos Miller, whose website Photography Is Not a Crime employs and writes about auditors. “[Like] many other cops and security guards, this guard lacked basic de-escalation skills, choosing to escalate a nonviolent and lawful interaction with a citizen by firing a deadly weapon. "
In 2018, Perez created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for her auditing and her transition. It raised $3,575. Later that year, she was arrested for filming outside a Marine Corps recruitment facility, later pleading no contest to one infraction count of disturbing the peace and paid a $100 fine. On Tuesday, Perez streamed a “cop watch” video on YouTube in which she and a friend film and speak to officers in Los Angeles. In the video, Perez narrates that she and the friend were on their way to conduct a separate “audit” when they saw several police cars parked on the street. Perez tells viewers that she and the friend were “making sure that they’re not hurting anybody; that’s it.” At one point, Perez’s friend chats with an officer about the make and model of the cars.
“We’re not auditing this place,” she clarifies in the video.
It’s the so-called failed audits that tend to get the most clicks, which has led to accusations from police that aggressive auditors are intentionally provoking them.
In May, an auditor known as “Mexican Padilla” was arrested while filming (and shouting and cursing) inside a police station in Leon Valley, Tex. This inspired a days-long protest in the town by auditors from across the country — during which police detained, arrested and confiscated cameras from several other YouTube personalities, leading to yet more viral videos and yet more outrage.
Nearly a dozen protesters and auditors are now suing Leon Valley in federal court, alleging that police assaulted, harassed, intimidated and illegally detained them.
In 2017, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Phillip Turner, an auditor who sued three Fort Worth police officers after he was detained while filming on a sidewalk near a police station. “Filming the police contributes to the public’s ability to hold the police accountable, ensure that police officers are not abusing their power, and make informed decisions about police policy,” wrote Justice Jacques Wiener of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.