For the past two weeks, New Yorkers have been swarming on and off of highways and bridges, blocking major roads and intersections, and holding die-ins for Eric Garner—a 42-year-old man who was killed by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo on July 17, 2014. Pantaleo will not face a trial. The grand jury’s non-indictment alarmed some; Eric Garner’s death had been taped start to finish by Ramsey Orta, a Staten Island resident and friend. The video was released to the New York Daily News the next day. The non-indictment cast doubt on growing cop-watch activities and police body cameras initiatives. Does video evidence even matter?
Andrew Padilla began cop watching earlier this year with the Harlem cop-watch team and says cop watch transformed the way he viewed himself and his relationship to police in the city: “As someone who’s been stopped and frisked at gunpoint before, as someone who from a very young age is told by their parents: understand that you’re a person of color, you are going to be treated fundamentally differently [by police]. What does that do to you? [You] develop a sense of powerlessness in you…. Going from [that] to actually getting people off of an illegal stop from our community and seeing other community members participate in that [while cop watching]. It’s just having [that] feeling: ‘okay, you don’t have to feel completely hopeless here.’ ”
Cop watch is the practice of filming police interactions with individuals. Patrols usually consist of about half a dozen people with at least two layers of cameras: a front team and a back team a few feet away. If an officer tries to infringe on the rights of the front team, perhaps seizing their cameras, the second string will have it on video. Dennis Flores, founder of activist organization El Grito de Sunset Park, has been organizing against police brutality for twenty years, and learned early on that cop watching with a team is much safer than cop watching alone. In 2002, while he was trying to document a police encounter with a student, he was arrested by ten to fifteen police officers, one officer bashing him on the head with his walkie-talkie. Afterwards, Flores realized he couldn’t cop watch alone. He started training other people in his community and developed a more complex method in which cop-watch teams would go out and “build a chain of cameras, watching over each other at various distances, at various angles. So the people that are immediately up close, they might get the footage but then when the cops see cameras all around them they’ll be hesitant to try to take those cameras away or to attack people.”
Cop-watching teams continue to grow around New York City. There are numerous cop-watch patrols in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem and Queens—some are independent while others are trained by and connected to different police accountability organizations. In October 2014 the Justice Committee, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement held five cop-watch trainings, one in each of the five boroughs. They ended up training about 250 people—double the usual attendance for their trainings. The trainings in October focused on “how to observe and document police activity as an individual in your everyday life,” according to Aidge Patterson of the Justice Committee.
Despite popular belief, the main purpose of cop watch is not to post the footage publicly, although posting can be a tactic to put certain precincts and officers under increased scrutiny. There are many different purposes of cop watching—the most immediate one: police officers may change how they’re interacting with someone when they realize a camera is watching them. Julien Terrell, on the Harlem cop-watch team and also an organizer with Brotherhood/Sister Sol, also sees cop watch as a way to “build a culture of resistance.” If someone is facing charges after a police encounter such as resisting arrest, disorderly conduct or assault on a police officer, cop-watch videos can be used to aid the defendant’s team. After filming an arrest, Flores works to get the person a lawyer and hands over the footage to be used in court.
Cop-watch footage can have a great effect in court, where juries frequently trust police officers’ testimony. In June, a 17-year-old resident of Sunset Park was arrested while filming an officer and charged with second-degree assault on a police officer. Flores, who filmed the interaction, described it as follows:
“This one kid who was filming [the police]. He was up close and he was by himself. There’s a woman who gets shoved onto the ground. [Then] the cops grabs the kid, steals his camera from him—I say ‘steal’ because the camera didn’t show up as evidence later on, it disappeared. But luckily we recorded it from different angles. The kid gets his head bashed in with a nightstick. The cop swings a second time and accidentally misses and cracks the head of another police officer but blames the kid. The kids gets charged with second-degree felony assault on an officer.”
The 17-year-old defendant was facing fifteen years in prison. He and the arresting officer testified before a grand jury in August. The grand jury also watched the video that Flores had recorded of the incident and provided to the defendant’s lawyer. After seeing that evidence, the grand jury declined to indict on second-degree felony assault charges.
Still, the most well-known cases are those in which footage become public. This past autumn, Sunset Park hit the news when videos began to surface of police brutality in the neighborhood—specifically cases in which fruit sellers were brutally arrested (and one was kicked in the head) and one in which a pregnant woman was slammed to the ground in September. One of the officers in each scenario was put on a temporary paid suspension. The videos were obtained by El Grito de Sunset Park (the organization does not disclose the name of the cop watcher to avoid retaliation). They worked to get lawyers for the families involved. Afterwards, El Grito de Sunset Park organized a protest where hundreds marched to the 72nd Precinct and a community town hall attended by then NYPD Chief of Department, Philip Banks. Their demands included: fire NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, end broken windows policing and replace the chief of the precinct.
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On December 1, Barack Obama announced that the federal government would become part of increased efforts to film policing. In the conclusion of a three-month review of police conduct in the United States, he announced his plan to spend $75 million to fund body cameras for 50,000 police officers. The body cameras were part of a larger package that would include $263 million in federal funding to go to police departments for trainings and technology.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner William Bratton announced that about sixty New York City police officers would begin wearing body cameras by the end of 2014. The body cameras will first go to officers working in low-income neighborhoods in New York, including East New York; Brownsville; East Harlem; Jamaica, Queens; and Staten Island’s North Shore, where Eric Garner was killed. Mayor de Blasio will also be seeking federal funding for more body camera equipment.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has voiced a strong support for body cameras, and added that before he leaves, the New York Police Department “will probably be the best technology-equipped department in America.” New York City Public Advocate Letitia James has been a strong voice in providing body cameras to the New York Police Department, calling for $5 million in funding for the pilot program and claiming that the cameras will reduce the amount of money the city pays out in misconduct claims.
In the midst of protests in August over the Michael Brown shooting, calls for body cameras have become increasingly popular. Brown’s parents and their lawyer, Benjamin Crump, called for legislation to put body cameras on police officers in the wake of the grand jury’s non-indictment of Officer Darrel Wilson. Two of the most popular petitions regarding Michael Brown, both of which collected over 100,000 signatures, called for a “Mike Brown Law” where all police officers nationwide would be required to wear a camera.
Despite the push for body cameras by policymakers and politicians, many organizers (both in New York and around the country) are not entirely convinced that body cameras are a meaningful reform—especially after Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for killing Eric Garner on camera.
Andrew Padilla is disturbed “that all this energy towards accountability…can be flipped into increased surveillance in communities of color and increased budgets to police.” The body cameras point at civilians, giving the police’s perspective of the interaction. In many videos released from officer body cameras, the police officer has their gun drawn but it cannot be seen in the shot. “Body cameras on police [are] fundamentally the opposite of cop watch,” Andrew Padilla argued. “Body cameras on police…record civilians. In cop watch, you record police.”
Other New York cop watchers, like Julien Terrell, worry about who will have authority over the recordings, and argue that the recordings should go to an independent body “with teeth” and should not be handled internally within the NYPD. Dennis Flores, who has experience with officers attempting to withhold and tamper with video and recording evidence told The Nation, “The NYPD already uses cameras [referring to TARU and CCTV surveillance cameras], and we don’t have any access to them. There’s no oversight. There’s no way for anyone to force them to release that type of footage. It’s at the police department’s discretion and the city’s law department. So they hold evidence when they know that you’re innocent. I expect the same thing with these body cameras.”
A Fusion investigation found that “the way body cameras are used usually serve police more than citizens charging misconduct. And in the data from two cities provided to Fusion, there was little evidence police body cameras reduced police involved shootings or use-of-force incidents.” Fusion determined the main reason body cameras tend to help police more than civilians: turning the camera on and off is at the officers’ discretion. In Albuquerque and New Orleans, during high profile police shootings, the police officer’s camera was off while they killed an unarmed civilian. And in New Orleans, cameras were off for 60 percent of use-of-force incidents. Although body cameras are advertised as a tool that helps keep police misconduct down, the reality is a little more complicated. The investigation shows that body cameras are not likely to lower use of force by police officers but more likely to absolve police officers of wrongdoing.
Taser (the leading company selling body cameras) has seen its stock price double since Michael Brown was killed in August. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the company called the killing a “‘massive awareness campaign’ for police body cameras.” VieVu, a private company which says they have sold more than 40,000 cameras, has a slogan that reads: “Made By Cops For Cops. Prove The Truth.” This branding was noticed by We Charge Genocide, a group that is based in Chicago and facilitates cop-watch trainings. The group released an official statement reiterating the importance of cop watching and acknowledging the limitations to a tactic that did not save Eric Garner, John Crawford III or Oscar Grant. They state, “Body cameras will not halt extrajudicial executions by police officers, only providing us more horrific footage to view.” The hope is that the footage will nonetheless play a role in making killings visible, something body camera footage rarely does.
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Police clearly see a difference between cop watch and body cameras. While Bratton has boasted of deploying body cameras, he has argued simultaneously that other people filming the cops could make it difficult for them to do their job. He does not dispute its legality, and issued a statement reminding officers that filming police is legal (codified in the 1977 court decision Codd v. Black). The current climate is more intense than usual, according to Julien, who says that “especially since the Eric Garner case some cops have been even more bold” about disrupting cop watching. Police officers often threaten those filming with arrest, claiming they’ll be charged with obstructing governmental administration. Sometimes these threats become reality.
Jose LaSalle of the Copwatch Patrol Unit in New York often films police interactions in the Bronx and East Harlem and started cop watching after seeing his stepson endure countless stop-and-frisk encounters with NYPD officers. In September 2014, he filed a lawsuit against the city after he says he was abused while filming two police officers in the Bronx. The New York Daily News reported that the “cops grabbed his camera, threw him up against a fence, cuffed and strip-searched him, then hit him with a summons for jaywalking in September,” according to his lawsuit.
For seasoned cop watchers like Dennis Flores, being vigilant at all times is a must. When asked if he thinks cops have tried to set him up before, he told The Nation, “I know for a fact they’ve tried to set me up before,” and went on to describe shady characters that he has encountered—some who have attempted to offer him drugs, sex, money or an “army” of revolutionary followers. “I’m wary of everybody who comes around me,” Flores told The Nation. “I definitely don’t trust anybody. I work with all kinds of folks, but there’s a space you have to protect—your private space.”
Flores doesn’t go to bars or out drinking and is cautious about putting himself in a vulnerable position. He tries not to go out at night alone, to avoid retaliation from police officers. Last Wednesday, the day the Eric Garner grand jury decision was announced, Flores found himself returning home alone at night from the protest (something that rarely happens) and stopped to get something to eat at his local taqueria. Inside the restaurant was a group of police officers, including Joseph Degen and Vincent Ciardiello, who were suspended in the fall because of El Grito de Sunset Park’s work. Apparently, some suspended officers were now back on the force. ”They started cursing at me, threatening me, laughing,” Flores told The Nation. “I walked out of there, and they followed me out of there.” Flores started filming the officers following him and called his lawyer. Eventually, he went into a store with surveillance cameras and waited for someone to pick him up. Over the twenty years that Flores has been organizing around police brutality, he says he “could go on and on [about] how cops have retaliated, have tried to get [him], have followed [him] around, taken pictures, waited for [him] outside [his] house…harassed [his] family.” At one point, NYPD officers from Internal Affairs showed up to the high school he worked at and asked his boss, coworkers and students questions about Flores.
On Saturday, August 2, 2014, Ramsey Orta was arrested and charged for criminal weapon possession two weeks after filming the homicide of Eric Garner. Police accounts say they saw Ramsey Orta put a gun in the waistband of a man named Alba Lekaj. However, Ramsey Orta has maintained his innocence from the beginning and says he was set up. Orta and his wife, Chrissie, have said that police officers have been harassing Orta ever since he filmed Eric Garner’s death. “Since the video has happened they’ve been harassing me. They’ve been following me, they’ve been sitting outside my house, they’ve been going to my wife’s job,” Ramsey Orta told Pix 11. Chrissie Ortiz reminded Pix 11 that the gun was not found in posession of Orta but Lekaj. In August, Orta was indicted by a grand jury. His fingerprints were not found on the gun in question. Because of this lack of evidence, his lawyer has requested to the judge multiple times for the case to be dismissed; however, those requests have been denied as the prosecutor is still waiting for DNA testing on the gun. He goes back to court on January 22, 2015.
Meanwhile, Pantaleo is free. On the night of December 3, after the Staten Island District Attorney had announced his non-indictment, Andrew Padilla went out to the protests in downtown Manhattan, camera in hand, with the intent of reporting and cop watching.
“You can say that doesn’t work in the case of Eric Garner,” says Padilla, “but you can also say had that video not been taken, would we have even known?” After all, the night Eric Garner died, The Wall Street Journal published a short article stating that a person in police custody died because of an apparent heart attack, not mentioning the chokehold that medical examiners determined was the cause of Eric Garner’s death when they ruled it a homicide. Without the video, a heart attack in police custody may very well have been the official story of Eric Garner’s death. The protests downtown that night might never have happened.
Padilla had begun filming another protester’s arrest, in which “a man was getting thrown on a car very violently,” when he was approached by a police officer and then arrested by the infamous NYPD Captain Lombardo. Andrew says he holds “no shame” for getting arrested while cop watching because, he says, he was out there because “Eric Garner was attempting to preserve his dignity.”