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ARLINGTON, Texas – Kory Watkins’ police scanner crackled to life. He rushed to a traffic stop in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant, sprang from the car and dartedtoward the flashing police lights and started recording video. Fellow members of his North Texas cop-watch group trailed behind.
Groups that monitor the police have attracted more attention nationwide since white officers killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. But Watkins is an unlikely ally of the movement. He carries his AK-47 assault rifle while on patrol.
“Why not?" he told America Tonight. "It's my right to do so and I want to exert my freedoms in the most powerful way and in the biggest way possible. That way, more freedoms are created by doing so.”
Watkins, a bartender by day, is the coordinator for Open Carry Tarrant County, a hybridof the cop-watching and open carry movements. The small band of gun-toting Texans warns motorists of DUI checkpoints and speed traps. They also show up at police traffic stops, record the proceedings – including any confrontations with officers – and post the videos on social media.
“More now than ever, we need police accountability,” said Watkins, a father of two. “We need people out there reporting, because it's not just here in our area; it's all over the country.”
As the group sees it, police are agents of the government and openly carrying guns is a statement of individual liberty. For Open Carry Tarrant County's members, monitoring cops and expanding gun rights are missions that go hand-in-hand. In Texas, it’s legal to openly carry a long gun like an assault rifle, but not handguns.
“I feel violated,” Watkins said about the handgun rule. “I think people have just forgotten about what we're supposed to be about here in America: liberty, freedom, the land of the free, the home of the brave. And it's not that anymore.”
Unsurprisingly, Watkins' actions have caused friction with local police. Last month, Jacob Cordova – a fellow cop-watcher – was arrested for interfering with police duties. Watkins accused the Arlington Police Department of abusing its authority and organized a protest.
Arlington police Lt. Christopher Cook said the problem isn't the fact that the group films his officers or carries weapons.
“That is a constitutional right and we welcome that. We have video cameras in our patrol vehicles, and so there is no issue with filming Arlington officers performing their duties,” Cook said. "…It's not even the firearm by itself. It's not the free speech or the insults. It's a combination of factors coupled with the physical action where the officer could no longer focus on the tasks they were doing.”
This fall, Watkins got too close, Cook said.
Watkins, his wife Janie and fellow open carry cop-watcher Joseph Tye, were arrested for interfering with a traffic stop. Watkins says he was within his rights to be there.
“In a perfect world, every officer would be upholding the Constitution and obeying their oath," he said. "And that means that I would have never been arrested for standing on the sidewalk filming and open carrying."
Cook said the department has reached out to Watkins’ group to request a meeting. But that request, he says, remains unanswered.
“They don't want to meet with us … And that's fine, they don't have to," he said. "We can't force them to meet with us, but we've tried to put our best foot forward, and we will continue to do so."
Watkins maintains he’s just advocating for his rights, a cause he also pushes on his new Internet radio program, "Cop Block and Open Carry Show with Kory Watkins." From his dining room, he shares stories and fields calls from across the country.
“People don't understand," he said on one show. "I guess that American Idol and Honey Boo Boo coming on may be a little bit more important than your rights. I don't know."
For the police here, Watkins’ combination of open carry and open confrontation remains an uneasy one. And not everyone in his city is happy to see armed citizens monitoring the police. The group attracted a counter-rally of police supporters the day America Tonight was there. Watkins, however, seems to welcome the controversy.
“If you get out and you come on open carry walks and you see the support, the people know the reality of the situation, so that's all that really matters to me,” Watkins said. “I expected to be painted [a certain way] and I'm OK with that. That means I'm doing something right.”