Jeff Gray is a truck driver living in St. Augustine whose hobby has amassed more than 1.4 million YouTube views.
He has a simple approach: show up in a public place with a camera and a thorough knowledge of what law enforcement can and cannot ask him to do.
His goal behind the videos is even simpler: remind both citizens and police about constitutional rights.
Gray calls himself a citizen journalist, and through his YouTube channel, he covers the law enforcement beat in North Florida, documenting the work of police departments, sheriff’s offices and state and federal agencies from Lawtey to Lake City.
Except he doesn’t tell stories that other journalists tell about police investigations and homicides and kidnappings and drug busts. His focus isn’t on those who break the law, unless it’s an officer doing the lawbreaking.
And contrary to the work of many photographers and reporters, the story is often himself.
Gray models the tactics of outlets like CopBlock.org and PINAC, or Photography is Not a Crime, based in Miami for which he is a correspondent. He tries to show viewers how to react to police in tense, real-life situations.
“I have gotten a little more daring… a lot more confident in myself,” Gray said. “I make sure what I’m doing is 100 percent legal before I do it.”
The tactics bring him cop scrutiny, but he seems to know exactly where the line is.
If he’s abiding the law on foot, and an officer asks for his identification, he can say no. And he does.
If he maintains distance from police operations, he can record an entire arrest or traffic stop.
And if he stands on public land while recording a prison, he’ll keep rolling even if a camera goes down.
“You’re not going to record”
It happened on a Saturday afternoon in June across the road from Lake City Youthful Offender Facility, 7906 E. US Highway 90. Gray was recording footage for a story about the Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the prison.
He parked on the north side of the road in an Osceola National Forest pull off. The prison is south of the road.
“Here it is,” Gray said as he began panning the camera. “Prison industrial complex. The ugly monster.”
Half a second later, a faint voice can be heard from across the road.
“Hey! Excuse me, sir. You can’t take pictures…”
Under his breath, in a voice indicating he knows something good was coming, Gray said, “I haven’t even been out here for a few seconds.”
“Why not?” Gray fired back.
“It’s against the law,” the prison employee said.
“What law? What statute?”
The employee turned and walked away. Gray hung out, turned off his iPod camera and waited for something else to happen. Sure enough, two employees returned in a John Deere utility vehicle, asked him to stop recording, heard his denial, and one wrote down his license plate number. They returned to the prison office.
A few minutes later, an assistant warden, George Dedos, rode out in the same John Deere.
Dedos was not messing around.
“At this point, I’m in my right to tell you to stop recording,” Dedos said.
Gray mentions it being a public space. Dedos’ response comes in one swift motion.
“That’s fine,” he said, snatching the iPod. “You’re not going to record.”
Unbeknownst to Dedos, Gray always keeps a backup iPod recording on his shirt, just in case this were to happen. The confrontation continued, captured by the shirt camera. A forest ranger showed up, followed a while later by three Columbia County sheriff deputies in two vehicles. They began taking statements from Dedos and Gray.
Eventually, a sheriff deputy curtly asked Gray, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m a journalist gathering content for a story that I’m working on,” he said.
In the eyes of the prison employees, the deputy explained, he might have been there recording shift changes or movements of guards in preparation for an escape operation.
There is no law, however, against recording a prison facility from a public space, noted Lawrence Walters, a First Amendment attorney in Orlando.
“If the prison doesn’t want the comings and goings of the officers to be seen or recorded,” Walters said, “then they need to do something to shield or prevent the capture of that information.”
WUFT’s multiple phone calls and an email seeking comment on the incident from a prison spokeswoman and wardens have not been answered.
Gray eventually got his iPod back. He has returned to the spot at least twice, including July 14 for what he called a Sunday morning “First Amendment picnic.” He brought three friends — Ed Clay of St. Augustine, Chuck Berlinghoff and Robert Labelle, both of Jacksonville — and his 13-year-old son, Marcus.
They lunched on Publix chicken and Ruffles cheddar and sour cream potato chips. After an hour or two of picnicking and pointing cameras across the road, no prison employees had come out to challenge them.
“Guess they learned their lesson,” Gray said.
An “unlawful arrest”
Jeff Gray was born 43 years ago in Marietta, Ga. He grew up there, moved to Florida in 1989 and married in 1998.
Teresa Gray was wary when her husband started his YouTube channel, HONORYOUROATH, in January 2011.
“It does put the fear in you, especially because we’re pretty tight on our budget, and you never know what’s going to happen,” she said, “but I have to give my faith to God and know that he’s put this in Jeff’s heart.”
Two and a half years after he began recording and uploading cop encounters, he’s up to 3,500 subscribers. Dozens of YouTube netizens comment on each video, and he responds to the more thoughtful and sincere — positive or negative.
The most viewed video is from May 2011. It details the equipment a friendly Green Cove Springs officer uses to pull over speeders.
Gray cordially explained to Officer Austin Graham what he was doing stalking small-town police with a camera.
“That’s fine. That’s no problem at all,” Graham said with a smile. The video has close to 210,000 views, 650 comments and is well known to the Green Cove Springs Police Department.
Gray’s cameras are notorious to many officers in North Florida, perhaps most of all in Lawtey.
The tiny town on Highway 301 is more than an hour from Gray’s home in St. Augustine, but he’s made it one of his frequent targets. Eleven of his videos, including his first, focus on its cops and their speed traps.
His hobby has led to only one arrest, and it was in Lawtey.
In early April 2012, he was standing on the side of 301, holding up a “speed trap” sign to warn drivers before police there could ticket them, and two officers pulled over, obviously peeved.
They asked him for identification, and because he wasn’t committing a crime, he refused.
Lawtey Police cuffed Gray and charged him with opposing an officer without violence, according to court records, but the state attorney soon thereafter dismissed the charge.
The incident made him wary of getting charged with something “bogus,” he said, by police who don’t appreciate his tactics.
The Lawtey arrest also helped earn him a lawyer friend — Eric Friday of Fletcher & Phillips in Jacksonville. Friday specializes in personal injury, criminal defense and firearms law.
Gray owns a concealed carry permit. When he was arrested, he had a gun and extra ammunition, items police did not return even after the charge was dropped. That’s when Friday said he got involved.
Gray often contacts him in advance to check the legality of his adventures. Friday said he does some of those consultations pro bono because he values Gray’s police monitoring.
“We have given these guys a badge and a gun,” Friday said, “and they have the right to use force on behalf of the state of Florida. They have to be above reproach.”
Police often chidingly ask people what they’re worried about if they’re not doing anything wrong.
“I would like to ask them the same question when it comes to videography,” he said.
A hobby and a passion
When Gray first started HONORYOUROATH, he said he believed the majority of law enforcement consisted of good cops with “a few bad apples.”
“Now, I’ve kind of switched that to the point where I believe the majority of them are possibly not bad cops, but unknowledgeable of the law,” he said. “I think the law enforcement officers are just not accustomed to a citizen knowing their rights and politely asserting their rights.”
The mission to find and expose those officers comes with incidental costs. The price of two iPods — maybe a few hundred dollars — plus gas costs and maintenance on a 2006 Ford Freestyle, his tan SUV that now has logged 150,000 miles, partly by driving around North Florida.
To help offset those costs, he recently monetized his YouTube channel. Short ads roll before many of his videos.
Knowledgable about how to develop a following, he’s begun to serialize his uploads to create suspense. A Putnam County sheriff’s deputy recently detained Gray for openly carrying a gun while fishing, and Gray posted video of the incident in two segments — three days apart — with the first cutting off just as the deputy lays down an ultimatum.
“Turn it off or I’m going to charge you,” the deputy said.
Gray refused, though the deputy just turned off the cameras and did not charge him. These interactions frustrate Gray, but also help keep him motivated.
“It’s a hobby but it’s also a passion,” he said. “I’m a libertarian.”
Gray did not attend college, instead attaining a GED and earning his living driving a truck. His employer has asked he not associate the company name with his hobby.
He said he reads often about freedom, constitutional rights and individual liberties. Those interests led him toward becoming a Ron Paul supporter.
They also align with Tea Party platforms, and while Gray said he’s not a Tea Party devotee, a recent incident in his city piqued his interest.
“He has an agenda”
On the Fourth of July, Castillo de San Marcos Park Ranger Jill Jaworski cited a St. Augustine Tea Party leader $225 for standing with a sign saying, “The Tea Party lives on 4 you” outside a demonstration area without a permit.
Gray heard of the incident and went to the same area a few days later holding a sign ridiculing the National Park Service’s “free speech zones.”
Kim Nayo, a park ranger, came out to meet him. They had an eight-minute testy conversation, exchanging barbs about the First Amendment and park service policies. At the end, Nayo and two other rangers simply walked away.
“How does it feel to be an oath violator, a mini tyrant?” Gray shouted after them.
Gray appears the belligerent, Nayo the calm and reserved ranger.
“He has an agenda. That’s fine,” Nayo told WUFT by phone after the incident. “But I think the comments speak for themselves.”
Gray’s agenda, he said, is the Bill of Rights, which contains nothing about free speech zones.
“I’m pushing back against, ‘See something, say something,’ the expansion of the police state and the government since 9/11,” he said.
While Gray’s mission is noble, from time to time he fails to live up to the first two parts of his YouTube channel description: “Stay cool, Be polite, Flex Your Rights, and Always Film The Police.”
As Gray continued a one-sided conversation with the rangers, he went even further, yelling, “Hey, make sure to tell those kids they have no First Amendment out there!”