The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

‘Copwatchâ€TM Activists Patrol Communities to Thwart Police Misconduct

by Michelle Chen

After sustaining their first arrests after years of keeping tabs on police activity in Brooklyn, members of a police accountability organization strengthen their resolve and review their approach to staking out law enforcement.

New York City; Mar. 3, 2005 – It was the kind of scene that would draw a crowd -- not because it was unusual, but because it was so common. In early February, police were wrapping up a routine arrest in the largely black Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York City, which has been the focus of recent crime sweeps. Three members of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s (MXGM) Cop Watch project happened upon the scene as they made their weekly rounds in the neighborhood, video camera in tow, patrolling the streets for suspicious activity.

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When the three began filming the police, and continued to do so after being told to move, they knew their presence was unwelcome. But what happened next was unanticipated: officers arrested two members, Djibril Toure and Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele. A struggle ensued, according to the group’s account, and an officer threw group member Dasaw Floyd, and the camera he was holding, to the ground. The camera swiftly disappeared into police custody.

The Copwatchers are now due in court later this month, slapped with charges of obstructing government administration, resisting arrest, harassment and assault -- mostly, they say, just because they watched when the police told them not to.

Though nationwide Copwatch activists have undergone significant police harassment and detention, this arrest was a first for the local Copwatch group. Kamau Karl Franklin, an attorney with MXGM representing the group, said the recent arrests fit well with the typical police protocol of "arrest first, and ask questions later." Local cops, he said, tend to prioritize asserting power over acting within legal confines: "I think they’re far more worried about establishing that they are in control on the street."

Drawing on a model of vigilantism first espoused by the Black Panthers, the program aims "to highlight the fact that people have a certain avenue they can take when they feel that their rights are violated."

Since their release from custody, the team has seen an outpouring of community and national support that reflects growing concerns over police brutality and harassment. Toure told The NewStandard that, having armed people with a different kind of weapon -- "the truth" -- MXGM Cop Watch has attracted hundreds of supporters over the years by combining the goals of self-protection and community education. Drawing on a model of vigilantism first espoused by the Black Panthers, the program aims, as Toure explained, "to highlight the fact that people have a certain avenue they can take when they feel that their rights are violated."

Technically, civilians have a right to observe and document police activity. An NYPD spokesperson stated, "People are allowed to photograph us when we’re making arrests or conducting an investigation, so long as they’re doing it from a safe distance, where they’re not interrupting the process."

Activists sometimes find that this is easier said than done. Last October, a member of the national watchdog group Police Complaint Center had his camera seized as "evidence" after allegedly filming an officer sleeping on duty in Woodbridge, NJ. After attempting to claim the camera at the police station, he was arrested and charged with obstruction and trespassing. In its ten-year history, the group says its provocative tactics have resulted in numerous arrests.

The responses of police to this brand of public scrutiny indicate that civilians are not the only ones taking notice of the movement toward community-based surveillance.

With a tinge of irony, Toure reflected, "police should be happy to see concerned citizens" trying to do what the police are supposed to: make the neighborhood safer. However, he observed that recent aggressive anti-crime initiatives have left people feeling more concerned than safe. "What we’ve seen is that people are being stopped more often," he said of his work in Brooklyn. "People are being frisked, and even brutalized when they resist."

Perhaps more than ever, police are a fixture of urban community life. A 1999 survey by the Department of Justice found that about one in five Americans had an encounter with police that year, and post-9/11 national security tensions have likely promoted greater police presence in communities. Heightened awareness of police misconduct has inspired various forms of civilian oversight in Berkeley, Minneapolis, Portland and other cities, ranging from one-person auditing agencies to elaborate investigative bodies to community members forming their own counter-police force. By working inside, outside and against the system, independent organizations counteract what activists view as law enforcement’s tightening chokehold on fundamental liberties.

Activists See Official Oversight As Starting Point, Not Solution

Interactions between official and grassroots police oversight mechanisms vary according to local politics and culture. In New York City, while MXGM promotes community-based responses to police oppression, it also guardedly works with the government agency that investigates and adjudicates misconduct complaints, the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). MXGM helps people file complaints to make their cases part of the public record, but nonetheless maintains that tensions between police and communities cannot be resolved purely through official means.

More cynical activists say grassroots efforts against police misconduct reflect widespread disenchantment not only with law enforcement, but also with bureaucratic oversight bodies that fail to respond to community concerns.

The CCRB is comprised of an investigative staff and a board of lawyers and community representatives. It only recently developed into a full-scale oversight body, following the 1997 Abner Louima case, in which police sodomized a Haitian man with the handle of a toilet plunger. Community outrage triggered an expansion of the agency’s investigative powers.

The Board -- the majority of which is handpicked by the mayor and the police commissioner -- lacks real disciplinary authority, as the New York Police Department (NYPD) ultimately decides what punishment, if any, to mete out.

"Certainly, the agency was set up as a recommendation agency," said Ray Patterson, a spokesperson for the CCRB. By definition, he explained, "we are not assuming to take any of [the police commissioner’s] power away from him." Local police unions, for their part, effectively blocked the local government from granting the CCRB full independent prosecutorial power in 2001, with a lawsuit to shield disciplinary proceedings from the public.

While the NYPD reports that it complies with 85 percent of the board’s recommendations for discipline in "closed" cases, a large portion of recent cases have yet to be officially closed by the police administration. In October 2004, the CCRB reported that over one-third of cases referred to the NYPD in 2003, 37 percent are still "pending," lacking a formal resolution by the department.

"The penalty phase is really a joke," Franklin said, noting that the preponderance of seemingly mild punishments, like lost vacation days, "really gets people in an uproar and make[s] them feel like this organization only does half of what it’s supposed to do." MXGM and civil liberties advocates have called for a more powerful oversight model in which civilians can directly discipline officers for wrongdoing.

The Board’s most powerful function, said Patterson, is to make police complaint statistics available to the public. CCRB records indicate that complainants whose allegations are substantiated by the board are disproportionately young, black, and male.

To Toure, the misconduct issue cuts deeper than statistical assessments: it is entrenched in the NYPD’s "culture of disrespect," which creates "a second class of citizenship" for poor and minority communities.

Franklin remarked that while the CCRB serves a certain purpose, "the real answers lie more in the community organizing, institution building."

By offering an alternative means of civilian oversight -- the in-your-face kind -- Brooklyn’s Cop Watch and sister programs in other cities have steadily built networks of local activists. The responses of police to this brand of public scrutiny -- both positive and negative, according to the observations of activists -- indicate that civilians are not the only ones taking notice of the movement toward community-based surveillance.

Police, officials, communities keeping eyes on one another

On the other side of the country the dynamic between government and the public of Berkley, California wavers between tension and cooperation. Berkeley activists are engaged with the official oversight system, working in partnership with, but also transcending the bureaucratic limitations of, the city’s Police Review Commission (PRC).

Acting PRC Officer Dan Silva believes the crux of civilian oversight is not punishment -- the PRC as a rule does not involve itself in police disciplinary proceedings. Rather, Silva said, the public nature of the PRC complaint process, in which investigative documents and hearings are open to all, "is an underestimated tool in police accountability."

By filming police several times a week and training others to do the same, Berkeley Copwatch has complemented oversight investigations with on-the-ground activism, sometimes supplying the PRC with video footage of police incidents as evidence. Silva believes that as a grassroots counterpart to official oversight, Copwatchers play a crucial role in the community's task of "voicing the standard of policing that is acceptable… in Berkeley."

"Historically," he said, "I think that they’re essential because they hold the PRC’s feet to the fire."

Copwatch volunteer Karla James thinks the PRC is "indispensable" to activists as a platform for advocating policy changes. She noted that the Commission supported a successful campaign against the use of police attack dogs last year by providing a public forum for activists.

However, James argued, complaint hearings are inherently biased against complainants, who in many cases go before the commission with virtually no legal resources or representation. Wary that open hearings are not necessarily fair ones, she said the PRC "on most accounts fails miserably." But, she added, "there’s just so much good about it, even though ... it doesn’t live up to what it should be doing."

More cynical activists say grassroots efforts against police misconduct reflect widespread disenchantment not only with law enforcement, but also with bureaucratic oversight bodies that fail to respond to community concerns.

In Los Angeles, Michael Novick, an activist with that city’s chapter of Anti-Racist Action, believes that oversight authorities can easily lapse into ineffectiveness without parallel activism in the community. He pointed to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as a case study in how the principle of independent oversight can be corrupted.

The chaos erupting from the Rodney King beating in 1991, compounded by an ugly corruption scandal in 1996, led to an agreement between the department and federal authorities on a reform agenda. Yet in December 2004 the Independent Monitor that tracks the LAPD’s progress reported that the Inspector General’s Office -- charged with overseeing internal police audits -- has itself failed to comply with the reform process. Years of shortages in staff and funding, reported the monitor, have resulted in "lack of timeliness and deficient quality" of independent review operations.

Having lost faith in government-initiated reforms, Novick is helping launch a local Copwatch project, with the aim of "empowering people to step forward and … be more proactive about the issue." He hopes the project will "not just change the police mentality, but change the community mentality," as ethnic and political divisiveness in the city have hampered the growth of a unified movement for police accountability.

In Pheonix, AZ, one of the leading cities for police use of handheld electroshock weapons, the local Copwatch group has not placed the establishment of a civilian review board high on their agenda. Though Copwatch activist Mike Kramer supports the development of an official oversight body, he questioned whether such an agency would be truly independent. Outside the scope of government, he argued, Copwatch-type programs, play a crucial role: "Even with a review board, there would still be a demand for this kind of activism." Over the past seven years, Phoenix Copwatch has conducted dozens of trainings in local communities to educate people on their rights and help seed new Copwatch programs.

On a quiet night, Copwatch members can be found staking out the police force -- sitting in a car, scanning law enforcement communications, cruising through neighborhoods with heavy police activity. Each volunteer has a designated role, like holding the camera or directly confronting the officer. The group does not disclose its patrol schedule: "The cops never know when we go out or how often we go out … we could be out at any time."

While activists may have reason to expect the worst when they roll up to a police scene, Phoenix Copwatch has in fact found that once police notice they are being filmed, the officers are instantly, as Kramer put it, "on their best behavior." While Copwatchers in this city are frequently denied the trophy of catching a corrupt officer on tape, they just as often gain the satisfaction of knowing their work helps protect the rights of civilians by compelling police to heed their legal obligations.

Other Copwatch activists measure the success of their work by the severity of the challenges they face. Reflecting on his recent hostile encounter with police, Toure said the experience only reaffirms his group’s commitment to "at least watch and observe what the police are doing -- if we don’t have any other power."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


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Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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