We See You: Why Catching Cops On Film Makes A Difference

CREDIT: ERICA HELLERSTEIN/ANDREW BREINER
CREDIT: ERICA HELLERSTEIN/ANDREW BREINER

This August, as protests in Ferguson, Missouri, were in full-force after the shooting death of Michael Brown, a chance encounter between two activists led to the creation of the Canfield Watchmen, a program aimed at pointing the camera back at police.

David Whitt, a 35-year-old resident of Canfield (where Brown was shot), struck up a conversation one afternoon with Jacob Crawford, who had traveled to Ferguson from Berkeley, California to document the protests. Crawford works for a Berkeley-based program called We Copwatch, which trains people to film police interactions and teaches them about their civil rights when stopped by law enforcement. Whitt was immediately drawn to the concept.

“I asked him what he does [and] he said ‘I just go out, [and] document cop activity,’” Whitt explained. “The way he said it made it sound really cool! I was like, ‘That sounds totally legal! How can i get involved?’”

Crawford immediately sprung into action. A few hours after their conversation, he set up a GoFundMe account for Ferguson residents who were interested in the program but lacked cameras. The following morning, the account had raised $1000, which enabled Whitt and Crawford to purchase four $200 cameras. “We took a picture of four hands in the circle showing the cameras. People responded and we got another $500 the next morning. Long story short, two weeks passed, and we’re close to $6,000 or $7,000,” Whitt boasted.

“Everybody is a cop watcher and anyone can do it. That’s the big secret. That’s what makes it so dangerous.”

While quantifiable data on the efficacy of filming cops is scarce, research does show that cops alter their behavior when they know they are being filmed. Many point to a study in Rialto, CA, where the number of complaints against police plummeted by 88 percent over a 12-month period when officers were forced to wear body cameras. The number of use of force incidents also dropped by 60 percent. A study in Mesa, AZ had similar findings: in an 8-month period, officers without body cams received three times more complaints than officers who did wear them. Among Mesa officers who wore cameras there were also 75 percent fewer use of force cases than the group had during the previous year.

We Copwatch is a leg of the original CopWatch group, which was founded in Berkeley in 1990 to document police harassing homeless people along Telegraph Avenue, a street that has long been a destination for runaway youth. Their first protest and demand for accountability was in November 1990, after Berkeley law enforcement beat Osha Nueman, a civil rights attorney and Berkeley Police Review Commissioner. Since then, they have protested, demanded accountability, and documented police misconduct in response to a number of high-profile police brutality cases — including the beating of Rodney King, and fatal shootings of Oscar Grant and Michael Brown.

Carrying the torch of the original Copwatch through teaching workshops and camera distribution, We Copwatch is spearheaded by Whitt, Crawford, and Blair Crawford, “a Black Panther who lived through COINTELPRO era,” according to the organization’s website. Since his first encounter with Crawford, Whitt has been a key force in getting Cop Watch off the ground in Ferguson, and has since named the program the Canfield Watchmen.

We Copwatch has a number of objectives. In addition to filming police, educating people about their civil rights when questioned, stopped, and detained by law enforcement is another goal. Cop Watch now hosts “know your rights” hour-long training sessions. The courses teach students about their legal rights (such as the right to record) if they are stopped by the police, and also explain legal terminology (like probable cause) and the difference between a casual stop and being detained.

“It really boils down to trying to get a mixed message out,” said Whitt. “We want to try to raise awareness and get the cops to stop harassing people, but at the same time we really want to start documenting what cops are doing.”

The group has distributed 210 body cameras since its inception.

Whitt says the Canfield Watchmen effort has “reassured the community that our sole purpose is to document and film police activity,” and has worked as a unifier among diverse groups of people at a time when different types of protest are needed. “Marching in the streets is one form of protest. People that serve food for people protesting are protesters. Us cop watching is another kind of proactive protesting.”

People could put images to the stories they’ve been telling for years about the abuse that they’ve been taking at the hands of law enforcement.“

Still, last week’s grand jury decision to not indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was filmed choking Eric Garner to death, dealt a huge blow to cop watchers and body camera proponents. Critics argue that rampant prosecutorial misconduct allows cops who are filmed to act with impunity, and that the presence of footage won’t change the outcome of police brutality cases. Indeed, history tells us that most grand juries choose not to indict officers in cases involving fatalities, even when they are recorded.

Nevertheless, Rashad Robinson, the Executive Director of the Color of Change organization, contends that filming police remains instrumental in creating a much-needed paradigm shift. The group is part of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of organizations working to end discriminatory policing practices in New York. Every organization has a role to play, and Color of Change created a platform for coalition members to share videos and information, called Cop Watch NYC. Although they are not directly associated with one another, Cop Watch NYC and We Copwatch share similar goals.

“For folks who have cop watched, they’ll tell you that police behavior often does change when they are caught on tape. And it gives the community more data points,” Robinson told ThinkProgress. “This diverse movement we’re seeing is partially a result of the fact that there was video. People could put images to the stories they’ve been telling for years about the abuse that they’ve been taking at the hands of law enforcement.“

Robinson also believes that the Department of Justice’s decision to investigate the Eric Garner case indicates that cop watching is fruitful. The real victory is the momentum with which the movement, which Robinson calls “dispersed yet organized,” is growing. Groups like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, FIERCE, and Make the Road New York, which all belong to Communities United for Police Reform, have advocated police reform for years, yet the recent grand jury decisions have fueled a much larger push for justice.

“Grand juries will always decide not to indict until we change that process. There is no political incentive for prosecutors to do a good job in these situations,” said Robinson. “[But] without the video, we wouldn’t be having the conversation at this level. We’ve been able to bring the issue of the two New Yorks — the New York that many white people are living in and the New York that black and brown people are living in — to the forefront. It’s put something elites didn’t have to deal with front and center, and it’s made people uncomfortable about an issue that was much easier for them to ignore.”

That conversation is unlikely to die soon. Every night since Mike Brown’s death in August, protesters have been in the streets demanding change in the criminal justice system. And much like Robinson, Whitt adamantly believes the movement will keep growing.

“What the cops don’t realize is that by them continuing to do what they’re doing, they’re only increasing the movement and raising awareness that we need everybody to cop watch. Everybody is a cop watcher and anyone can do it. That’s the big secret. That’s what makes it so dangerous.”