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.”