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.