Turn on the news and another reel is playing: A man is brutally beaten trying to buy groceries with an EBT card in Oakland; a woman refuses to put out her cigarette during a routine traffic stop and is never heard from again; two Texas deputies fatally shoot a man with his arms raised. The viral spectacle of police brutality captured on video is now inescapable, galvanizing fresh organizing like #BlackLivesMatter. It functions much like television footage of white terrorist violence in the Jim Crow South: When enough people were presented with incontrovertible evidence of brutality, public opinion became more favorable to activists.
Filming the police turns the tables on the police surveillance that black and brown communities face daily. For example, in New York, the NYPD uses video surveillance technologies, including CCTV and TARU. The department has pioneered geospatial predictive policing initiatives like CompStat, and pushed the now controversial “broken windows” theory of community policing, focused on the close monitoring and criminalization of small offenses like littering. Mayor De Blasio and Commissioner Bratton have both voiced commitment to expanding NYPD video surveillance. In the hands of police, copwatch organizers say video surveillance technology, including body cameras, hasn’t been used to keep communities safe, but to help police avoid charges of misconduct and in the service of repression.
In academic circles, copwatching is considered a form of sousveillance, which translates from the French to “watching from below” and refers to recording or monitoring of authorities, like the police. (Surveillance, by comparison, translates to “watching from above” and refers to being monitored by authorities.) Through copwatching, communities are learning that, depending on which way the cameras are facing, they can become a powerful tool in court or in advocacy. While the state trains its gaze on communities to “keep them safe,” members of the public are increasingly aware that it is the watchers who need to be watched.
Here, we break down what copwatching is, and how to do it.
What is copwatch, anyways?
At its most basic, copwatching is filming the police as they interact with civilians in public. José Martín, a community organizer and participant in various copwatch patrols in New York and Chicago for the last 15 years, spoke with The Nation in order to demystify copwatch and why certain communities might find the practice of filming police useful.
“Copwatch can look a number of different ways,” says Martín. “[Often] it’s very local, in your neighborhood just getting together as many people as possible to film the police.”
As you might guess, the structure of each copwatch is different because different neighborhoods have different relationships to the police, but there are essentially two models for filming police interactions. “In New York, I think there are two different kinds [of copwatch],” says Martín. “One kind is the people on the block. On every block, somebody knows to film the police if the police are harassing people on their block. And then there’s a very different kind which is people doing patrols. Sometimes [copwatch] actually means organizing serious patrols and doing outreach, organizing specific groups or communities who request copwatch.” What sorts of communities might request copwatch? A surprisingly diverse swath. Martín believes that “when you organize amongst street vendors, people in gangs, sex workers, every copwatch is a little different because [of] the people who are doing it.”
While each copwatch model is unique to the needs of a specific locality, these kinds of organized, pre-scheduled patrols use specific routes and participants are well trained ahead of time in strategies for filming police.
Who is copwatches?
In New York City, most copwatch trainings are held by nonprofits. But Martín explains that copwatch typically exists in other milieux. “I’ve never done a copwatch training with a nonprofit. Most copwatching across the country has nothing to do with nonprofits. New York is a rare example where most [copwatch training] takes place through nonprofits, although certainly not all,” Martín says. “It’s much more institutional here, even though many of those institutions are radical.”
In New York, groups like Peoples’ Justice—an amalgamation of Malcolm X Grassroots, Justice Committee, and CAAAV—have been giving trainings to packed rooms of New Yorkers wondering about how to start copwatch in their respective local neighborhoods. Justice Committee, which coordinates patrols in the South Bronx, Jackson Heights, and in Washington Heights, is the parent group for something called the Cop Watch Alliance. Cop Watch Alliance is an informal collective of local copwatch patrols in parts of Brooklyn like Flatbush and Bushwick. Often, copwatch patrols are organized in anticipation of times when police activity is higher. In June, in anticipation of Pride, local LGBTQ-focused advocacy and nonprofit groups like FIERCE! and the Audre Lorde Project each held copwatch trainings that were standing room only.
Martín says that you’d be surprised at the diversity of people there to learn about filming the police. “I’ve been doing copwatch for about 15 years. I’ve done trainings for high schools who want know-your-rights trainings as part of their curricula, I’ve done it for everyone from street organizations, to gentrifiers looking to offset their impact, to very old community groups that came out of the Black Panther period, to people who were doing it already and didn’t call it copwatch, all kinds of people—mostly in New York and Chicago,” he says.
How does one copwatch?
There isn’t one prescriptive model for copwatching; best practices should be tailored to a community’s set of needs and relationship to the police. There are, however, ground rules that Martín agrees are wise to keep in mind when copwatching. “I think there are certain basic things that are always potentially going to happen when you’re filming the police,” he says.
Patrols: Copwatch is safer when it is done in a group. This helps to distribute liability and risk should police decide to challenge the copwatchers—it’s harder to single out people if you’ve made a plan to watch each other’s backs. This model is referred to as patrolling, with foot patrols being the most common. Copwatch sometimes involves patrols on bikes, but “I don’t recommend that,” says Martín. “I strongly prefer copwatch patrols on foot. You can’t organize, you can’t talk to people. Good copwatch is constantly doing outreach and education. And the education piece is ‘know your rights’ where you’re getting to know your neighbors, you’re giving out contact informations and resources, you’re offering to do a training in their community. It becomes a social question,” he says.
Rebecca Heinegg, a criminal attorney in New York who works with victims of police brutality, explains that when a team goes out to patrol, it’s best to have an attorney on call to consult should things get dicey. In New York, there are a number of practicing attorneys like Heinegg who are versed in criminal law and volunteer their time with organized copwatch patrols (one reason why preplanned copwatch can be safer). She or another attorney will make sure that they are available by phone for counsel during their patrol.
“There’s a small group of volunteer attorneys, and whenever a team in a particular neighborhood has a patrol scheduled, they will send out an e-mail asking if anyone is available to be the attorney on call for a team in East Flatbush or Sunset Park or Harlem, for example. And whoever is free responds with their cellphone number and contacts the person leading the patrol for that night. When they’re heading out, the patrol will text or call to check in and when they come back in safely at the end of the night, they check out with the attorney on call to let us know that they finished without incident,” Heinegg explains.
Heinegg’s eight months volunteering with copwatch in New York City have been incident free. “They’re careful about how they do it and they’re good at what they do,” she says of the patrols she volunteers with. “Almost never do I get calls with problems during the patrols.”
Filming: When filming police, it’s important to stay back so that you remain a neutral party. “Stay a few car lengths away so you are obviously not interfering but still within earshot,” says Martín. In theory, cops are trained to understand that filming police is legal. In practice, it’s more of a gamble.
“In New York, it’s actually in the NYPD patrol guide that it’s legal to film the police,” explains Heinegg. “There’s a consent decree called Black v. Codd that the city entered into back in the 1970s, stating that the court required the city to allow people to observe and document arrests as long as they’re not interfering. It’s really just common sense: You don’t physically interfere with what they’re doing in any way, you step back. It’s more likely to go smoothly if the person filming is not belligerent or aggressive with the police. You have to stand back a bit and just try to get a clear shot,” she says.
Martín advises copwatchers to always train the camera on the police and not the other person in the interaction. “It’s about keeping a lens on the cops,” he says. “You have to make it clear to those involved in the situation and to bystanders that you’re there to film the police.”
The method of filming has a doubled structure to it. Martín recommends that patrols film in two groups because “you need people filming the people who are filming the police.” This helps prevent the police from taking illegal action against copwatchers filming them. “For the person filming, you should try to stay quiet with the exception of documenting the exact time, date, location, or numbers on police vehicles. You should also have somebody else act as a liaison between the person filming and the police, to de-escalate for their protection,” he says.
Bring a community liason: Police may use the fact that copwatch is not widely understood against you while filming. “Usually, they try to turn the people that they’re hassling against you. You need to be ready for that,” warns Martín. Enter the community liaison. “Having someone act as a liaison who is willing to explain to the person being stopped by police that the police are lying to them about copwatch is critical.” Because police may be confrontational, copwatching involves de-escalation, outreach and education. “Once they’ve stopped someone and we start filming, one of the most standard things cops say is, ‘Now that someone is filming, I have to give you the ticket or I have to arrest you. Before, I was just going to give you a warning.’ It’s always a lie, but that’s what they say to people. You then have to make that call, because, while you want to respect the other person, if the police are doing something [violent] you want to be there to document it,” says Martín.
Generally, you need to stick around the scene after the altercation with police. “It’s really important to try to have the conversation with the person being harassed by police afterwards. It’s a tricky thing, you really have to gauge the situation. The conversation doesn’t always go well, but the majority of the time it does,” says Martín. Try to make human contact, and explain what’s happening and who you are. “You’re not just some random gawker who wants to become Internet-famous. You’re there to give them evidence. If you talk to them, they may understand and respect what you’re trying to do. They may want to [copwatch] too, and get trained themselves. As it spreads around the community, it’s a lot harder for police to engage in the same violent behavior where they harass people,” he says. “If the person involved with the police while you’re copwatching is or even isn’t arrested it’s important to try and find someone nearby who knows them, and to create contact information so that you can get them the video documentation.” Martín advises any video that doesn’t show police harassment should be deleted so as not to contribute needlessly to surveillance of the community.
Security: It’s not unheard of for police to attempt to confiscate or destroy your phone or camera during a copwatch patrol. That’s when filming the people filming police comes in handy. But there are other measures Martín recommends to keep cops from destroying evidence. “It’s incredibly important to encrypt your phone, to get basic password protection, so that police can’t look at anything on your phone or camera without a warrant,” he says. “If you are arrested or detained and the police don’t specifically go after your phone or camera, leave it with someone else. It’s also possible now to livestream to a private channel, so you’re not publicly sharing the video but it’s instantly uploaded to the Internet. That way, the police can’t just break your phone.”
Copwatch can’t always prevent police brutality. “Really what you see a lot of the time is that police act with impunity,” says Heinegg. “In New York, we’ve seen multiple examples recently. The shocking thing for people is, even being filmed, there are very few consequences for police officers. With Eric Garner, it didn’t help at all. It actually landed [Ramsey Orta] in trouble.” So why bother?
When police know they’re being filmed, they may behave differently. Many copwatch organizers believe that the act of filming police restores dignity to people who are often disrespected by law enforcement, and shifts the balance of power toward the community. “It’s about bearing witness and making the police understand that you’re watching,” says Martín.
Further, Heinegg points out, copwatch is effective because “if there is some kind of problem, you have the video evidence in the court case to follow. A lot of the times there are issues on the ground with gaps that frequently occur between what the law is and how police apply it.”
Martín participates in copwatch because he sees himself as part of a community. “It’s not about individuals filming the police, it’s all of our responsibility. And if we care about our community and love our neighbors then we have to have their backs. We copwatch to organize communities, not just to be social workers or the police’s police.”