In August people filled the streets in Ferguson, Missouri, following black teenager Michael Brown’s death by police shooting in the city. Hundreds of protestors in New York and across the country gathered to show solidarity with protesters in St. Louis and to demand justice for Brown. There is no footage of Brown’s murder, and many wonder—would events be unfolding differently if there were?
Police abuse in low-income communities of color is not a new phenomenon, but widespread access to technology with which to record and share such abuses is. When Eric Garner died in Staten Island after a police officer put him in a chokehold this July, a bystander filmed Garner’s death with his phone. The resulting video was later published by the New York Daily News, and arguably contributed to the national outrage over police violence this summer.
Using camera phones and social media, it’s now easier to document and publicize police brutality cases. More importantly, such recordings provide accounts of incidents that were once simply the word of a witness against that of an officer. In the neighborhood where Brown was killed, residents have started wearing cameras around their necks to document police activity. Other recordings of the NYPD, including a surveillance video preceding Ramarley Graham’s death in the Bronx in February 2012 and a teenager’s audio recording of an officer’s racial slurs during a stop-and-frisk, have been released in recent years and have contributed to public understanding of police violence.
Cop Watch is an initiative to encourage people to document police abuses. Aidge Patterson, a coordinator at Peoples’ Justice, whose work was recently featured in the New Yorker, told me the trainings were designed to spread the culture of cop watching. “We hope more and more people start watching the police, communities feel empowered to assert their rights, police understand that they can’t get away with misconduct without us holding them accountable, and definitely with the hope that less people will face police violence,” he said.
But police don’t always appreciate—or respect the legality of—civilians documenting their actions. Organizations like Cop Watch and Cop Block, whose members proactively patrol communities with cameras to record any foul play by police, have sprung up across the country within the last decade. In response, local police departments nationwide have targeted leaders with threats and have made arrests, even illegally confiscating recording equipment. Technology isn’t enough to keep people safe, and it’s as important that people learn their rights as well as techniques to protect themselves from police interference while cop watching.
On September 30, fifty budding cop watchers gathered in a community space in the Bronx for the first of a citywide series to teach New Yorkers to monitor and document police abuse. The Cop Watch Training Series is a collaboration between the Justice Committee, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement—all community-based social justice organizations working to empower and protect members of communities of color that together form the coalition “People’s Justice for Community Control and Police Accountability.”
The workshop launched with a description of Cop Watch’s conceptual origins in the Black Panther Party in the 1970s. Members would patrol Oakland neighborhoods, carrying law books and weapons in plain sight—legal at the time—while observing police interactions with community members. “With technological advances we carry cameras and the knowledge of our rights,” explained Daniel “Majesty” Sanchez, a representative of the Justice Committee and one of three trainers facilitating the Bronx workshop. His fellow trainer Yul-san Liem added that though one can still watch the cops as part of a formalized team, individuals can now (thanks to the ubiquity of smart phones) use the tactics much more easily in their daily lives.
Monitoring or videotaping the police is an undisputedly legal activity, despite what some uninformed or corrupt police officers might say. So is the right to remain silent and the right not to consent to a police search if there is no probable cause or other legal justification.
Of course, there is often a chasm between legal rights and the way police enforce the law. Not only is the law itself racialized—as Michelle Alexander details in her book The New Jim Crow—but racism inflects every stage of the criminal justice system. “I feel like we’re all in waiting to be arrested or molested,” remarked one participant with exasperation. Many recalled incidents when, although they didn’t realize it at the time, police were acting illegally. By knowing their rights and documenting police behavior, community members can hold police accountable for their actions.
Police brutality can include both physical harm and emotional-psychological trauma: using unjustified escalation of force, sexual harassment and assault, unwarranted sarcasm or verbal abuse, police murder. The Stolen Lives Project reports that in New York and New Jersey, at least 436 people have been killed by police since September 11, 2001.
Rarely are police held to account for these killings—the indictment of Richard Haste, the NYPD officer who killed eighteen-year-old Ramarley Graham in the Bronx in 2012, was the first indictment of an on-duty NYPD officer for such a shooting since 2007, when three detectives were indicted (and later acquitted) for killing Sean Bell. But Haste’s indictment was dismissed in 2013, and last month the Department of Justice announced they had launched a full investigation. Graham’s family continues to fight for the indictment all officers involved in Graham’s killing on federal civil rights charges. Last month the grand jury for Brown’s case got an extension until January—which many consider a stalling tactic—and St. Louis officials are currently looking into a report of misconduct by a member of the grand jury. Late last month, the grand jury began hearing evidence for Garner’s case.
But while death by an officer is the most extreme form of police brutality, it is not the only form that has lasting consequences. The psychological effects of being stopped-and-frisked or of experiencing verbal and physical abuse from the police from a young age can cause serious trauma. The fear and distrust caused by aggressive police presence creates an unsafe environment for everyone.
“Peacefully documenting police activity makes communities safer,” said Robin Steinberg, executive director of the Bronx Defenders. “In recent incidents like Eric Garner’s death in an NYPD chokehold, video footage helped bring the truth to light.” Without the video, a completely different story about what happened that day may have become the accepted one—indeed, we may never have heard Garner’s name.
The Three Ds of cop watching are Deter, Deescalate, and Document. “We are not here to be superheroes,” said Sanchez. “We are not vigilantes, as much as I’d like to be sometimes. We’re here to keep ourselves safe and that person [being harassed by the police] safe.” Cop watchers are instructed to stand at a safe distance from the incident, documenting it in whatever way possible (videotaping on a phone is the most common and effective practice).
Cop watchers also learn how police violence is racialized—and often targets queer, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people. Certain situations (being on probation, parole, etc.) make it particularly unsafe for that person to film the police, and people are encouraged not to cop watch alone if they felt unsafe.
Cop Watch instructs a person being approached by an officer to say “I’m not obstructing you in any way. I’m only exercising my legal right to observe the police while you are doing your job.” Trainers urge cop watchers to repeat this when necessary and to keep recording when possible. Cop watchers are also urged to ask the person(s) being targeted if they are okay, if they know why they are being stopped—and if it seems appropriate and safe, ask if someone needs to be called for them.
Cop Watch trainings provide information on cop watching apps, like NYCLU’s “Stop & Frisk” App and FiVo, which download your phone’s video recording directly to the cloud to protect the footage in the event that your phone is taken or damaged. Trainers stress the importance of contacting an organization that deals with police violence, rather than just posting the footage to YouTube.
Trainings like these are important because they inform people of their rights, provide a space for practicing knowledge and tactics, and bring people together to discuss and strategize around police violence in their own communities. But in the program’s greatest potential also lies its inherent challenge. Central to cop watching is the idea that people being targeted can take back control of their communities by holding police accountable. But Cop Watch organizers often find it difficult to sign up volunteers for regular neighborhood patrols. In trying to recruit more people, trainers seem to include community members, and sometimes those from outside a community, who aren’t targeted by police violence as frequently, such as white people, gentrifiers, and activists. The challenge for Cop Watch then remains how to mobilize those who are less likely to be abused by the police to help make their communities safer, while keeping the management and control of cop watching in the hands of those who are most vulnerable to abuse.
Lucy McKeon’s work has appeared in the Boston Review, the Paris Review, The Nation, Guernica, and Salon. To read more visit lucymckeon.com.