SLO officers accused of targeting a witness to a use of force incident

July 23, 2022

Officer Blake Etherton


San Luis Obispo Police Chief Rick Scott says it might just be coincidence that officers in two police cars followed a videographer who is known as the “SLO County Observer” for seven minutes a few days ago. The officers followed him for a distance of about two miles before stopping and citing him for failing to use his turn signal to travel from Pismo Street to Higuera Street.

The videographer accused the officers of targeting him in retaliation for a video he shot.

“SLO County Observer” live streamed and uploaded a video to YouTube showing a police officer hitting a man in the temple during a July 17 arrest. Shortly afterwards, the unnamed officer was placed on paid administrative leave pending the results of an investigation.

Four days later, officers in at least two police cars appeared to follow SLO County Observer while he drove northbound on Higuera Street, a rearview video of the incident shows. As one police car turns away, another car pulls behind the videographer.

Officer Blake Etherton follows the videographer onto Marsh Street, before the officer turns right onto Pacific Street without activating his turn signal.

The videographer continues northbound on Marsh Street and makes a right turn onto Nipomo, driving for a short time without an officer on his tail before he turns right onto Pismo Street.

Etherton then loops around and again begins following the videographer, this time on Pismo Street near the intersection with High and Higuera streets.

The videographer transitions onto Higuera Street in a lane that also allows a left turn onto High Street. The meeting point for Higuera and Pismo streets meet in a roughly “y” shape with Pismo feeding directly to Higuera Street going south.

Lane markers at the intersection show a right arrow to go north on Higuera Street, a left arrow to go east on High Street and a straight arrow to transition onto southbound Higuera Street.

After officers followed the videographer for about seven minutes, Etherton pulls him over claiming he failed to activate his turn signal a full 150 feet before heading onto Higuera Street. The video appears to show the videographer did not turn left.

In addition, Etherton incorrectly quotes California Vehicle Code 22108, which  requires all drivers signal at least 100 feet, not 150 feet, prior to making a turn or changing lanes.

The videographer explains on camera that he drove straight onto Higuera Street. But Etherton does not agree. He writes the videographer a ticket.

Chief Scott says the facts might support that the officer and the videographer were headed in the same direction, towards a police call in progress.

It is not clear which call the officers in the two police cars would have been responding to that would require them to drive in a loop. The officers followed the videographer northbound on Higuera Street, onto Marsh Street, then onto Pismo Street before heading south on Higuera Street. The cars traveled roughly two miles over a period of seven minutes going from north on Higuera Street to south on Higuera Street.

“There is a very strong possibility the person was not being ‘followed’ or ‘stalked’ at all, but chose to take the same route as the police officers responding to a routine police call for service, which was broadcast over the police channel and possibly also received by any person utilizing a consumer grade scanner,” Scott said. “I am waiting on the full details to be provided to my office so these circumstances and the issuance of the citation can both be review [sic] for further administrative action.”

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If anyone did a little research and looked at daily police logs that the SLOPD publishes on their website, you’d see that their claim that Officer Etherton was in the area responding to a call completely checks out. According to the logs for incident #220720068, a welfare check call that came in at 6:14pm for a transient female yelling at the top of her lungs near the corner of Beach & Buchon, Officers Sisemore and Etherton were dispatched to that call at 6:20pm (right when the dash cam recording starts), the first officer arrived on scene at 6:24pm, and they cleared from the scene at 6:26pm. The route Etherton was driving in the video matches him both responding to and leaving that incident. Anyone can check the logs for incident #220720068 and see for themselves.

The real question is why was “SLO Co Observer” driving around in a loop? Does this guy just drive around all day listening to his scanner and pulling his pud hoping to catch a cop making a mistake? If a cop sees the same vehicle repeatedly driving around, it could be someone casing houses to rob, looking for victims, drugs, or prostitutes, etc. I don’t blame Etherton for using the turn signal violation for a pretext stop (which is totally legal per Whren v. United States) after observing a vehicle driving suspiciously.

It’s also pretty ironic for a guy who follows cops around hoping to catch them making a mistake to complain when he thinks the cops are doing the same to him!

All debatable, I suppose, except for the ticket. It’s a straight and left turn lane. If you signal left you are intending to turn onto High Street. If you don’t signal left a right-on-red turn from northbound Higuera onto High would be ok for another driver. Don’t get me started on people who don’t think it’s anybody’s business which way their going or which lane they’re in. Straight is southbound Higuera where Pismo Street ends. A separate right turn lane is provided to turn onto northbound Higuera. If you proceed without signaling left what are you doing? Driving directly into the trailer park next to the dope shop? Go to Google street view and look for yourself. I had high hopes for Chief Scott, but if he’s going to let this Josh Walsh-style behavior to continue the only improvement is his not leaving his gun on the T.P. dispenser.

The ticket definitely is debatable. CVC 22108 says “Any signal of intention to turn right or left shall be given continuously during the last 100 feet traveled by the vehicle before turning.” Furthermore CVC 22107 says “No person shall turn a vehicle from a direct course or move right or left upon a roadway until such movement can be made with reasonable safety and then only after the giving of an appropriate signal in the manner provided in this chapter in the event any other vehicle may be affected by the movement.”

Note the words “turn a vehicle from a direct course”. To make a slight left to go onto South Higuera OR to make a hard left to go onto High Street both require turning your vehicle from a “direct course”. There is nothing in the statute that says a driver needs to analyze all possible directions to turn including looking at arrows painted on the road and only signal if they are taking the most extreme right or left route. What if they were three roads to the left, what would you do then? Single left for the leftmost, not for the center, and right for the least left of them? That’s ridiculous. If you are turning, you signal in that direction, period. And yes, the straight arrow very well could be to indicate going straight into the driveway of the Mathews Trailer Lodge.

If the worst you can say about the new chief is that one of his beat cops wrote a ticket that is debatable, then we are doing pretty good. I’ve received more than one debatable ticket, but I didn’t make some whiney statement claiming retaliation to get attention and more clicks. I fought those tickets in court and won. That how our adversarial justice system works.

I have found countless discrepancies in that daily police log.

Thank you for weighing in, Chief Scott. lol

Anyone who thinks “SLO County Observer” just innocuously goes around documenting malfeasance in this county clearly has not watched many of the videos on his channel. Despite styling himself as some sort of social justice warrior who merely goes around exposing public wrongs, a better name would be “SLO County Antagonist”. His MO is to get in the face of public employees, being as obnoxious and caustic as possible and goading them to react all while blatantly filming them. Sure, his actions may not strictly be “illegal”, but they certainly are antisocial and distasteful and are done more as a cry for attention and clicks on his channel than any sense of public good. Similar to a malodorous homeless person speaking obscenities to you, while it may not violate any legal statue, it certainly doesn’t contribute to a pleasant and harmonious society. He did get lucky and recently happened to film a single incident of potential police overreach, but the rest of his videos are a sad waste of time to watch.

And just like the “observer” has the legal discretion to act obnoxiously within the law, the police also have the discretion to hold people accountable for any laws they break no matter how minor. In this case, it seems pretty clear that he talked himself into that ticket by telling the cop to “just write me a ticket, you f’ing prick” and “you’re a f’ing joke, Etherton”. I wonder if he still would have gotten a ticket if he was able to control his emotions, keep his cool and not insult the officer.

His MO is to get in the face of public employees, being as obnoxious and caustic as possible and goading them to react all while blatantly filming them.

False. He is a silent participant in that he goes around filming random public locations, officials, etc. and if left alone, just goes about his business.

It’s only once people approach him and become confrontational (“stop filming!”) that any kind of conflict occurs.

He’s well within his 1st Amendment Right to film in public. If the situation becomes “obnoxious” it’s because someone who doesn’t understand the first amendment, starts trying to bully him into forfeiting his rights.

You obviously haven’t watched many of his videos. There are numerous examples of him not remaining silent and taunting people even before they approach him (one example, calling out to a random private citizen on a public street “Hellooo, you’re a corporate type. Hella corporate!” before they have said a thing to him.) He obviously chooses situations where he can push boundaries to the maximum permitted by law just to get people to react and tailors his verbal responses to further antagonize them as much as possible. And it’s not just “public officials”, in some cases it’s private employees and private citizens.. What exactly is the value and public good coming from these videos? Educating people that the law allows immature a-holes to act like pricks while filming others in public? I guess some anti-social maladjusted individuals get off on watching videos of people harassing and upsetting other people.

The police are also well within their rights to choose to cite someone if they believe they have violated a law (as someone else pointed out, courts have upheld the use of “pretext” traffic stops), so he really has nothing to complain about if the police serve him up some poetic justice within the constraints of the law.

I’ve never been harassed by the police, and granted they’ve had no reason to, but if I were in this manner, my language would not be PG rated. I still support the SLOPD, formerly just driving around and collecting a paycheck, now having to be a picket fence against the tide of devolution.