In a free, non-hierarchical society, there wouldn’t be a police force — a group of people paid by those in power to use violence to enforce laws. Laws are typically made by elites to protect their power and social position, and therefore a primary function of police is to protect inequality. Historically, the most oppressed communities have suffered the worst abuse and violence at the hands of police. In response to this brutality, people have organized to protect our communities by watching the cops. These efforts try to deter the worst police abuses by exposing them to public attention. While the police are always watching you, usually no one watches the police. The Black Panther party originally existed to follow police patrols and stop their abuse of the black community. In more recent years, activists around the world have started Copwatch projects to keep an eye on the police.
The following are exerpts of the Berkeley Copwatch Manual on how Copwatch groups monitor police activity. If your town doesn’t have a Copwatch project, you can start one by gathering friends and forming your own citizen patrols. Good luck!
Our main tactic in Copwatch is to discourage police brutality and harassment by letting the cops know that their actions are being recorded and that they will be held accountable for their acts of harassment and abuse. To this end we will:
• Record incidents of abuse and harassment
• Follow through on complaints
• Publicize incidents of abuse and harassment
• Work with the [City of Berkeley] Police Review Commission
• Educate those who don’t believe that police harassment exists.
People don’t want to be arrested. As Copwatchers, we don’t want to escalate a situation to where police arrest someone as a way of getting back at us. We want cops to treat people with respect and to observe their rights. Often, cops forget that homeless people and others actually have rights. We may need to remind them from time to time. We must learn how to assert our rights and to encourage others to assert their rights without endangering someone who is already in some amount of trouble.
We do not attempt to interfere with officers as they make routine arrests. We document and try to inform the cops when we feel that they are violating policy or the law.
• Be sure your warrant status, bike or car is up to date. Don’t give the cops any opportunity to bust you. Assume that this could happen.
• Identification can be very helpful if the police detain you.
• Have a partner for safety as well as good Copwatching. It is very important not to confront the police alone. You must have a witness and someone who can verify your story in case of a problem
• Make sure that you are not carrying anything illegal! No knives, drugs, etc.
• Wear a Copwatch identification badge.
• Be sure that you or your partner brings things you will need to Copwatch: Incident forms, the Copwatch Handbook, Police Dept. complaint forms, Copwatch literature to distribute, tape recorder, police scanner, video recorder, cameras, copy of Penal Code
As you observe a situation, one partner records what officers are saying or doing, while the other quietly gets information from witnesses. Consult and share information. Get a firm grasp of the situation first. Record as much information as possible. Witness names and numbers and badge numbers are important. It also helps to write down when, where and what time the incident happened. If there has been an injury, encourage the person to see a doctor and take pictures of the injuries as soon as possible. Distribute Copwatch literature while you are observing a stop so that people understand that you are not just there to be entertained but are actually trying to help.
Remember that you have the right to watch the cops. You don’t have the right to interfere.
When you observe police remember that you don’t want to make the cops more nervous than they already are. Keep your hands visible at all times. Don’t approach an officer from behind or stand behind them. Don’t make any sudden movements or raise your voice to the cop. Try to keep the situation calm. You don’t want to get the person in more trouble. If an officer tells you to step back, tell the officer that you do not want to interfere, you simply wish to observe.
More Assertive Style:
• Ask victims if they know why they are being arrested or detained.
• If the stop is vague, ask the cop to name the Penal Code Section that they are enforcing.
• Have educational conversations with people standing around.
• Don’t piss the cop off if you can help it. Don’t let it get personal. No name calling!
• Identify yourself as “Copwatch.”
• Try to stay until the stop is concluded. Remember that Rodney King was just a traffic stop originally.
• If a person wants to take action, give them complaint forms.
• Don’t assume who is right and who is wrong. Observe and document before taking action.
• Don’t inadvertently collaborate in a crime (don’t become a look-out, warning if police are coming, etc.)
• Taking pictures or videotaping can be a problem if the detainee doesn’t want you to. Respect them. Tell them that you are working to stop police misconduct. If this doesn’t satisfy them, turn off the camera.
• Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. Don’t tell people you will get them a lawyer or take the cops to court, etc.
• Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” if you are asked legal questions. Better than giving out wrong information.
To see the full manual or for other information, check out www.berkeleycopwatch.org.