Video footage in the police killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Delrawn Small, Freddie Gray, Ramarley Graham and others, has played an undeniable role in exposing the horrors and realities of policing in this country. In many of these cases, footage has come from witnesses who have decidedly taken a stand to document, deter, and deescalate police violence, which is disproportionately focused in Black and Latino/a and other oppressed communities across the nation.
Given this we implore all to continue to monitor, document and expose abusive policing and to fight to build safe, healthy and empowered communities. Standing up for the liberation of ourselves and our communities through Cop Watching can be scary. In spite of being a constitutionally protected right, it involves an elevated risk of unjust arrest and/or abuse by the police. With this in mind, we offer these recommendations for practicing Cop Watch as safely and effectively as possible.
When you begin to film: try to get the full bodies of the cops and the people they are targeting in your frame. Record the date, time, location and identifying information about the officers by saying them into your camera. Describe any police misconduct you see. (E.g. “They are searching her pockets. She did not give her consent.”). However, don’t fully narrate what’s going on or add commentary as you may drown out what’s being said during the incident and/or inadvertently incriminate yourself or others.
Do your best to continue filming: If the police approach you, let them know you’re not trying to interfere, you are simply exercising your right to document them while they’re doing their jobs. Use your judgment! If a community member is emotionally disturbed and/or your presence seems to be escalating the situation, you may want to move farther away from the incident. However never leave the incident. Even if you feel you have to put the camera down, try not to turn it off.
If the police tell you to get back: While taking a step back say, “I’m cooperating. I have stepped back. I’m not trying to stop you from doing your job. I’m just exercising my legal right to observe the police.” Do your best not to allow the police to make you leave the scene or push you back so far that you cannot see what’s happening. You have the right to observe as long as you are not obstructing the police. Exercise that right!
Let someone know you’re Cop Watching: Send a message to someone at another location letting them know where you are and that you’re Cop Watching. Check in with that person when you are finished filming to let them know you are okay.
Guidelines for posting footage: In cases of clear misconduct and excessive force, it’s important to get the footage out there. However, try to get permission from the person targeted and try not to post anything that seems like it might incriminate a community member. If you are unsure how to proceed, reach out to an organization with expertise in this area or a lawyer first. They can also give you advice if you are afraid of backlash by the media or the police.
Keep your love for your community in mind: Your goals should be to de-escalate and deter abusive policing if possible and if not, to document it. Cop Watching is not about agitating the police or making a statement. It’s about protecting one another and exposing police violence.
Finally, keep in mind that footage alone will not ensure police accountability, as has been made clear by the cases of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Delrawn Small, and many others. We need systemic transformation of policing policy, practice and culture, real accountability for abusive policing, an end to bad policy like Broken Windows policing, and investment in the empowerment of our communities, all of which will only be achieved through sustained organizing and movement-building.