‘Copwatch,’ or: How activists are changing police behaviors in New York City

By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, October 22, 2012 12:45 EDT
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NYPD on bikes, via Shutterstock.com. All rights reserved.
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In a unique activism short film, the Waging Nonviolence blog explored how activists in New York City are working to change police behaviors there by organizing “copwatch” patrols that diligently film police encounters.

The tactic of copwatching was started in the ’70s by Black Panther activists in San Diego, but it’s made immensely easier today thanks to the proliferation of video recording devices. It’s a past-time for some activists, too: dozens of “copwatch” chapters exist across the U.S., loosely organized online.

In New York City, where protesters are a common sight on the streets and stop and frisk searches are overwhelmingly targeting minorities, copwatching has become serious business for some.

“We divide into two teams,” a New York activist explains in the film. “A front team and a back team. One team will go up closer and be primarily responsible for filming the police and everything that’s happening in that incident. Then the team in the back is responsible for staying at a greater distance and being able to film both everything that’s going on in the incident, but also the front copwatch team.”

She went on: “So, in the event that the cop becomes aggressive with the front copwatch team, it’s the back team that’s documenting that and acting as a support. We do have direct experiences of being able to deescalate situations because the cops become aware that we’re there, that we’re organized, that we’re documenting.”

Not all footage gets released, of course: New York copwatch activists say they don’t publish videos of police encounters without consent. Even so, just knowing that little brother’s always there can have a real effect on police, and could even keep a wrongly accused person out of jail.

This video was published to YouTube on October 10, 2012.


Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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