A few days ago, while on my way to work, I witnessed two NYPD police officers confront a young woman of color at a subway station. I did what I usually do when I see a similar situation; I took out my phone and began recording. On this particular day, I witnessed the officers push the young girl to the ground, an act of excessive force. A group of bystanders, myself included, formed a circle around the scene, some documenting, some yelling at the police. It was an unpredictable situation, one that had the potential to escalate quickly. Several other officers were called to the scene. The police escorted the girl from the subway station and the situation appeared to de-escalate. Those of us bearing witness walked away. Afterwards, on the train to work, my mind was flooded with questions: Is the girl okay? Did I do all I could? Why did I panic and stammer when one of the cops yelled at me to back away from the scene? What do I do with the video footage, now?
Perhaps you’ve considered filming the police but decided against putting yourself in that position. Perhaps, like me, you want to feel more prepared when you pull out your phone and begin recording. As citizens of digital and physical space, we have the right to document the actions of police officers and to communicate when their actions violate human rights.
As long as police have existed, so have groups of people who organize to watch and document their actions. From the 1960s-70s Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and American Indian Movement, to 1990s Copwatch groups in Berkeley, learning about the hxstories and participants of past movements help to inform the unique position of present-day copwatchers and how you can situate your self for the cause.
The term copwatch refers to civilians using cameras as tools for documenting, de-escalating, and deterring an escalation of police violence and determining whether a person(s) will stay safe until the end of an encounter with police officers. Copwatching is just one piece within a broader movement to end police violence, and a valuable form of community self-defense.
Deciding to Copwatch
A person who copwatches must be willing and able to put themselves in the position of filming the police when a situation presents itself. Making that decision can be complicated when considering ones own intersecting identities, abilities and potential for making oneself vulnerable by stepping forward to film police officers. Deciding not to copwatch is necessary for many. As a white cis-woman who is not often targeted by police, I believe making my self visible to police officers by filming them during an encounter is a basic responsibility I have to my community.
One of the biggest observations I made from my recent experience is that my anxiety skyrockets when I am in an unpredictable situation that has the potential to escalate into violence. I’ve decided to study my rights on a regular basis and to practice what I might say to the police the next time I’m in a similar situation, so it becomes easier for my mind and body to be effective in anxiety-inducing times. I’m giving a lot of thought to what my boundaries are, particularly when entering and exiting a situation that feels unsafe. Support is key! While you navigate these types of decisions on your own, consider reaching out to friends, mentors and people you trust for feedback.
The first action we can take is to educate ourselves. Here are some pieces of advice to begin, compiled from various sources (many listed below).
Openly recording the police in public is constitutionally protected and it is legal for you to do so, with some considerations. Keep a reasonable distance when filming. If a police officer believes someone is “interfering” with their actions it is possible that person will be detained or arrested.
Stay calm. Tell the officer you have the right to observe their actions and that you don’t intend on interfering. It is encouraged to be in groups of three or more, if possible, to support one another and to have further witnesses who know one another in the event of confiscation of a phone or an arrest. In some states the ACLU has an app that allows you to livestream and simultaneously export a copwatch video as while filming (as of this date, New York State does not participate). Write down and remember details: date, time, location, badge numbers of the officers. If you participate in a copwatch group, engage with the community about what you do and educate others about their rights to film the police.
You can watch a short documentary video of young folks in their late teens and early twenties who copwatch in Jackson Heights here.
Laws vary from state to state, so it is important to consider researching specific laws in your area. The New York Civil Liberties Union has information about filming the police and ICE here.
There are many zines, pamphlets, websites, videos and groups that can support as you continue to learn. Since everyone absorbs information in different ways, the following is a variety of types of sources and activities to consider as resources.
Zines & Pamphlets
Note: Many of these are anti-copyright, meaning they are free, downloadable PDFs to print and disseminate. Others are published under a Creative Commons License (credit the authors appropriately). Some have the option to purchase physical copies through the mail.
Copwatch 101 – Distributed by Sprout Distro
Film the Police! and Know Your Rights! Pocket Zine – Distributed by Indigenous Action Media
A World Without Police – Distributed by Sprout Distro
Copwatch 101 A Training Outline – Published by The People’s Response Team, Chicago, IL.
*(available to watch free on Kanopy if you login with your QC ID)
Local Groups & Other Resources
Engaging with this work requires perseverance and humility. Copwatching is not an opportunity to show up with a safety pin on your cardigan and call yourself a hero, or even an ally. Chances are that if you commit to seeking out and working alongside those who copwatch, you will encounter scenarios that reveal things about your self and the world that make you feel angry, helpless, ashamed, embarrassed, and even scared. You will also learn a tremendous amount that you can’t learn alone. You may be told you handled a situation inappropriately. Listen to criticism. Even if your intentions are good, you may still make decisions that cause harm. In those moments, you can choose to sit with your discomfort, apologize in a direct way (if possible), educate your self, push forward, and grow.
Copwatching is one way citizens can use counter-surveillance to hold systems accountable for unjust actions. The next time you pull out your camera phone to take a selfie, or capture that cute puppy down the block, consider how you and your friends might use these tools to seek justice and liberation for those in your community.