Speaking to just over a dozen Republicans at a local diner last week, Fort Worth’s police chief opened by invoking God, the Constitution, and the group’s shared disdain for cop watchers.
“I love coming to a meeting with an agenda like this,” Neil Noakes said. “We open with prayer, we thank God, and then we pledge allegiance to the greatest nation of God’s green Earth.”
Noakes, who was guest speaker at a meeting of the Tarrant County Republican Hispanic Assembly, aired his apparent mistrust of the First Amendment, which allows citizens to voice grievances to government officials.
“We had a council meeting that went a little later than we anticipated,” Noakes said. “It was one where a third of the speakers hated the police. I take the hate sometimes. [Police] face so much hate these days [from] people who [film us with phones while] yelling and screaming. They are a very loud and vocal minority of citizens.”
Noakes’ reference to phone-camera-wielding citizens is likely tied to citizen journalist Manuel Mata, whose recent arrest by Fort Worth police has captured national attention but little local reporting outside of the Weekly.
The video “Police tried to stop a cop watcher from filming” by the alternative outlet the Real News has more than 40,000 YouTube views. In the video, Mata livestreams a traffic stop at an undisclosed part of the city. As he stands filming on the sidewalk, an unnamed officer orders him to move back several yards.
“Do you understand Turner versus Driver?” Mata shouts back, referring to the 2017 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals that affirmed the First Amendment right to record police.
Soon after, several officers arrest Mata for interference with public duties, a Class B misdemeanor.
In the Real News story using Mata footage, reporter Stephen Janis goes on to describe why Mata’s case deserves scrutiny.
“Let me show you an example,” said Janis, shown standing on a sidewalk and motioning to nearby private property and streets. “Sidewalks are sacred ground for journalists. If I step into the street, police can arrest me for obstructing traffic. If I stand on this land, the owner could get me for trespassing. That means the only space I have to do journalism is the sidewalk. The sidewalk is sacred in that sense. That is why this case is critical, and I hope Mata pursues this in some way as a lawsuit because we need to protect the ability to report from the sidewalk. It’s the only place left [where we can work freely] and one we need to protect.”
Our review of the public comments from last week’s council meeting revealed only instances of constitutionally protected speech. Several speakers — including one local who personally thanked the Weekly for advocating for government transparency — raised concerns about the lack of police accountability and the ongoing harassment and unlawful arrests of cop watchers.
Mata is on trial for his bogus trespassing and obstruction charges that resulted from his lawful work as a citizen journalist. He told our reporters on several occasions that one of his main goals is to compel police officers to follow their own procedures and to respect the civil rights of all Fort Worthians.
Based on Mata’s videotaped encounters with law enforcement that clearly show rampant misconduct, the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office should drop his ongoing charges. Local elected officials should request that an independent law enforcement agency investigate potential instances of official oppression by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department and Fort Worth police.
Noakes owes the public answers about why he spoke in uniform at a political event in possible violation of Texas Local Government Code Sec. 143.086, which bans peace officers from politicizing their jobs. Despite Noakes’ poorly chosen comments last week, the feelings of police chiefs do not supersede the rights of citizens to film police or express valid frustrations to elected officials.
Real News host Taya Graham says Mata’s unlawful arrest reveals a deeper truism about American society.
“The inequality that defines our country is exacerbated by the unequal distribution of the power of the people to voice their concerns,” she said. “Our system is supposed to serve the people but often fails to do so. We need independent voices like our cop watchers to fight back. We need independent voices to shape a counter-narrative to the one being peddled by elites. I hope Mata will get out of jail soon.”
Last week’s story on the decision by a Tarrant County family court judge to rent out his courtroom for a fundraiser for a for-profit company caught the attention of many readers (“ Darker Possibilities,” Feb 22).
“Thank you so much, Edward Brown, for continuing to raise awareness of the family court,” one reader said.
Staff writer Brown received more than laudatory messages for his reporting on the event organized by the family counseling group Brighter Possibilities. He is now reviewing dozens of photos and government documents that appear to show recent fraternizing among judges, family law attorneys, and groups contracted by the county to weigh in on family court cases. Those friendly relationships are questionable at best and highly unethical at worst. Mothers and fathers have every right to assume that when they walk into a courtroom, those legal professionals are not predisposed to give biased rulings or advice based on personal relationships.
Clearly, there’s more reporting to be done in this area. We welcome anyone who has evidence — social media posts, photos, and documents — of unprofessional socializing that may constitute conflicts of interest to email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. We will protect the anonymity of all whistleblowers.
This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. He will gently edit it for concision and clarity.