On the Streets :A CrimethInc Article:
Organizing a Copwatch Program
Copwatch groups seek to contest or at least limit police repression by directly monitoring police officers. Copwatch volunteers patrol the streets, observing police and recording their interactions with civilians. They often concentrate on areas of high police activity or to which known trouble-making cops are assigned. Copwatch groups also advise people of their rights and listen to their stories, and otherwise endeavor to undermine and thwart the police state.
Most radicals, not to mention many others, realize that the idea of policing itself needs to be completely rethought. In the meantime, people have to be protected from the brutality they face daily at the hands of the police.
Get a Group Together
Form a group. Put out calls for one everywhere, even on the bulletin boards of church groups and local grocers, not just in the activist community. Approach your neighbors—the best neighborhood watch includes a copwatch.
Educate people in your community and other communities, especially targeted ones, about their legal rights, and about how to carry out a copwatch. Hold classes everywhere in your city, at accessible places and times. These can be formal events, or informal teach-ins outside a movie theater or between performers at a show.
Hold regular, accessible, well-advertised meetings—don’t depend on the internet for all or even most of your communications. Many of those who need copwatch most are unlikely to have easy or regular computer access. Decide as a group what your goals are and how you will go about achieving them.
Find hotspots where police repression frequently takes place. Look for them in the police blotter in your local paper, or ask around in neighborhoods, or approach lawyers who do a lot of street work and request advice.
Establish patrols, and have them report on their observations on a regular basis. Your group will be more effective if it is well organized.
For a variety of reasons, it makes the most sense for people to do copwatch patrols in their own neighborhoods. If it is important that you patrol another neighborhood, make an effort to become familiar with it: get to know locals, and make sure you understand local issues and context. Canvas from door to door if necessary, introducing yourself and your group and announcing your intentions and motivations. Be open to input from locals; they are the ones who will experience the bulk of the repercussions from everything that happens in their neighborhood. Come through on your commitments: don’t just show up out of nowhere doing a copwatch program for a little while and then disappear, stick around until locals know who you are and that they can count on you.
When the cops are particularly brutal or kill someone, raise a ruckus about it. Put pressure on them and keep it on. Approach the survivors and follow their lead as to how to handle things. Offer to organize protests or benefit events, screenprint shirts, or play media liaison for them. If they’re into it, hold demonstrations, spray paint the names of the victims and murderers everywhere, smash out the windows of the offending police station.
Agitate for laws and regulations that enforce stricter controls on police. Try to get the worst police officers fired. If your community has a Citizen Review Board, make an effort to give it teeth. Police review boards should be elected by district, not appointed. They must be empowered to impose punishments and fire officers.
People from communities that are terrorized will often be understandably afraid to stand up for themselves. A copwatch program can be the first step towards solidarity with each other.
How to Copwatch
To copwatch effectively, all you need is your eyes and ears, and some means of recording incidents. A small notebook and pen or pencil are the most useful and least conspicuous. A camera or video camera can also be useful, as can a cell phone or an audio recording device.
Copwatching is generally safest and easiest if you make sure to follow the letter of the law. There should be no drugs, alcohol, or illegal weapons on your person or in your system. Be careful not to jaywalk. This author has friends who have done a perfect copwatch, then jaywalked almost immediately after leaving the scene, receiving a $50 ticket for their efforts. If you are driving, make sure that you and all of your passengers have on seat belts. Resist unnecessary horn honking or loud music as you drive away—violations of noise pollution laws and ordinances can be used as excuses to detain and arrest you. If you are not following the very letter of the law, you may end up doing more harm than good and could get yourself arrested. Don’t give them any excuse to bust you.
Copwatching is best done with two or three others—you are less likely to be arrested in a group. One cool-headed person can take the role of speaking to officers, getting their names, ranks, badge numbers, district designations, squad car numbers, license numbers, and general descriptions, thus making them aware of your being there as observers. The others should hang back, recording every detail of the encounter, being careful not to interfere, provoke, or draw attention. If you have the numbers, one person can pose as an individual onlooker with no connection to the rest of the group. Decide on your roles before the encounter, if possible.
Presumably, you are there to defuse the situation, not escalate it. Don’t goad the police into arresting people as a way of getting back at you because of your attitude. Reign in the hostility you feel towards them—be polite but firm. Remember, police are dangerous. Walk, don’t run, and avoid quick or sudden movements around them.
At the same time, don’t be so easily intimidated that you cannot accomplish your task. Police officers who feel threatened by your concern about the victims of their repression may well threaten you, shouting “Move on!” and puffing themselves up like territorial frogs. In the course of your interactions with them, you’ll develop a sense of what to expect from them and an instinct for exactly how seriously to take their threats.
Carry cards detailing legal rights, flyers with information about local copwatch programs, and other information with you to give to people subject to arrest or harassment. Inform people about their rights, and of any numbers, local services, or internet sites by means of which they can contact a lawyer or learn how and where to file a complaint. Citizen complaint review boards are often virtually useless as a way of dealing with police brutality, but they can be useful for documenting incidents. Be aware of local laws and limitations—for example, in some cities, in order to be able to file a lawsuit against the city, you must send a letter to the mayor announcing your intention to sue the district within six months of the incident in question. In such a case, you should emphasize to people who have suffered police brutality that they should keep their options open: “You don’t have to follow through with it, but you should secure your right to sue if the incident was severe enough for you even to think about doing so.”
When observing police officers’ interactions with civilians, try to get as much information as you can. Make note of the day, time, and exact location of the incident; the officer’s name, badge number, district, and physical description; where arrestees are being taken; the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of any witnesses; and vehicle or license numbers for any police vehicles involved in the incident. Use cameras or other recording devices to document the event from beginning to end. Take down complete descriptions of police actions and any resulting injuries. If there are injuries of any sort, even preexisting ones, be sure to detail what medical attention was or was not offered by the police—people have been let go by officers after copwatch members observed them being denied medical attention, even though the injuries had been not caused by the police.
If you feel it is warranted, you can call 911 and report that someone is being injured. Wait until the end of your statement to note that it is the police doing so, but don’t leave that out, and stick to the facts. As all 911 calls are recorded and are relatively hard for the justice system to “lose,” they can provide useful documentation for legal proceedings. You can also call a friend’s or your own answering machine and record what is happening as it happens, assuming the tape is long enough. The sound quality may not be as good as an on-site recording device would provide, but the police cannot confiscate the tape; this method can be particularly useful if everyone present is getting arrested. If you get arrested and the police don’t take your cell phone immediately, call a talk show or progressive radio station from the back of the police vehicle.
If you witness someone else being arrested, try to give the arrestee a way to contact you, and vice versa. This is not to say you should give your name or get their name in front of police. Give your name and contact information only if you are comfortable with the police getting it, unless there is another way.
If you are comfortable doing an assertive copwatch, introduce yourself when you approach the scene and explain that you are there doing a copwatch. Ask police why they are detaining or arresting people, but don’t ask arrestees for their names directly, as they might not wish the police to have it. If arrestees say their names and addresses to the police loud enough for you to hear, write them down. If the justification for the stop seems to be vague, ask officers to name the section of the law they are enforcing. Officers will lie and make mistakes—if you know the code do better or have a copy of it with you, speak up. Don’t approach or speak to the arrestee directly while he or she is being detained; if you do, you risk being arrested. Sometimes you’ll have to do just that, but know what you’re getting into.
If a detainee is let go or ticketed, make use of the opportunity to give your flyers and rights cards to them. If a detainee is arrested, you can fold a card in half and ask the officer to give it to him or her—fat chance, but miracles happen. You can’t speak to an arrestee directly without risking trouble, but you can loudly talk about what rights people have with the police or a bystander or your compatriot. These include the right to remain silent, the right to speak to an attorney, the right to refuse a search of your person, personal items, or car.
Stick around until the police have moved on. The Rodney King beating began with what seemed to be a routine traffic stop.
Make use of every opportunity to have educational conversations. Speak to onlookers about their rights, about what citizens can do about police brutality, about community alternatives to policing. When answering questions about legal matters, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” This is always better then giving out wrong information.
Collect statements from other witnesses if you can. Many will not want to get involved. Try to persuade and educate them otherwise, and get statements from them even when you can’t get their names.
Keep the information you have gathered from your copwatching. If your copwatch group does not keep records, keep track of it yourself. It can be useful to submit copies of your records to government agencies, so they will have them documented and on file. Do not edit any videotapes you shoot, as this can render them useless as evidence in court.
If possible, carry with you the text of the laws most commonly used to justify harassment. In addition to being familiar with and ready to cite local laws, it can help to learn local police regulations, though it is often difficult to obtain copies of these. During your encounters with police, be forceful rather than tentative, but remain polite.
In extreme cases, police will smash or confiscate and “lose” your equipment to keep you from having evidence against them. If it seems like this might happen, a member of your group should swiftly leave the area with the evidence that has been gathered so far.
Be prepared to be arrested. Though copwatch is not illegal, police will trump up charges. Carry ID and at least $50 if you want to be able to get out of jail swiftly and easily.
Know what you will and will not do in extreme situations. Consider in advance what risks you are willing to take and what charges you are prepared to receive in order to intervene if someone is being beaten, injured, or killed by the police. Decide this ahead of time and talk about it within your group, so all of you know what to expect from one another. If you copwatch in some areas, you will eventually find yourself in this situation.
Be prepared to follow through on your work. If you couldn’t get an arrestee’s name and you feel that the situation was bad enough to warrant further investigation or that the abuse will continue after the arrest, go to the station to which he or she has been taken. Loudly and firmly ask what condition the arrestee is in and demand to know the charges he or she has received; explain what you saw during the arrest, and ask to make a complaint against the officers. This makes the police aware that people are concerned and will follow through; it may stop a back room beating.
Be careful leaving the area after a copwatch. Police have been known to follow, ticket, target, or beat copwatchers a few blocks from the site at which they were observed. Don’t let down your guard.
Report on what you have seen to your group, to whatever citizen review boards your area has, however ineffective, and to your community at large. Talk to city council members about police conduct, and show them your evidence. Tell them you want hearings and policy changes. Get your information to the National Lawyers Guild and or the ACLU. Tell community and church groups. Write up reports and spread them through local independent media outlets, both websites and papers.
If your copwatch group is ready, you could establish a copwatch hotline, a phone number people can call to report the activities of police officers; you could even have a response team ready to follow up calls. You could also start your own local copwatch paper or website, reporting on your observations, the conduct of local police, and the struggle in your community to survive and thwart police repression.
Don’t copwatch alone if there are other options. You should not ignore those in exceptional danger just because you are alone, but be aware that lone copwatching entails taking extra risk. If you have been convicted of felonies, have a lengthy arrest record, or are not a citizen, you should probably not copwatch alone unless the circumstances are really exceptional. Be less assertive in engaging the police or the individual being detained or arrested than you would be if you were in a group. Police officers are much more likely to arrest or assault you if there are no other witnesses present.
Be especially careful to obey the letter of the law. If possible, remain at least twenty feet from the incident that you are watching; try to phone someone and let him or her know what’s happening. As always, take complete notes and, if possible, photos, audio, or videotape of the incident. If you take photos, make sure that they are taken at the last possible moment, to ensure the safety of you and your camera. Be especially careful leaving the area. (Article)