How effective is "copwatching"?

In this digital age, having a camera or a phone is becoming more valuable. But this isn't solely because of the monetary value or the Instagram age that we’re living in. These objects have changed from being apolitical devices to political. Especially when it concerns filming the actions of the police and holding them to account.


So much so, the term “copwatching” has filled the timelines of media outlets and academia.


Despite the practice becoming more prominent over the last few years, copwatching isn't a new idea. Jocelyn Simonson used the Black Panther movement in the 1960s as a prime example of this idea. In 1966, the movement carried out patrols within heavily armed police areas in the United States and carried around cameras to capture any actions that the police were doing.


Matthew Johnson, an unarmed 16-year-old, was shot by a police officer on 27th September 1996, and his death was the catalyst for the Black Panther movement to start using their copwatching tactics.


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In Oakland, California, Stanley Nelson, a film director, filmed the Black Panthers filming the police. He told Terry Gross, journalist and co-executive producer of radio show Fresh Air, the movement would “observe the police and make sure that no brutality occurred.” At the time, Nelson felt the movement was “policing the police", which demonstrates how monitoring the police has been occurring for decades.

Thirty years later, copwatching organisations began to spring up, the first being in Berkeley, California. In March 1990, Berkeley Copwatch began patrolling the streets to document police harassment of homeless people on Telegraph Avenue. During this time, there was a massive crackdown on homeless people within the area, and the majority of the homeless lived on this avenue.


However, parts of this crackdown became violent, and that’s why the organisation was adamant in highlighting police misconduct on homeless people. In the winter of 2003, the organisation assisted activists at the anti-Iraq war protests by giving out legal training and distributing information about their rights.


Since the inception of the first copwatching organisation, ten others have been set up in local areas of the United States, Canada and Europe. An organisation called WeCopwatch aims to educate and empower citizens to know their rights when officers approach them.


The purpose behind copwatching is to highlight and prevent police misconduct, as well as providing a form of accountability. Since the introduction of the practice, many videos have captured police misconduct. But more recently, videos of police brutality have gained prominence.


The treatment of George Perry Floyd in May 2020 captured by Darnella Frazier is a prime example of how copwatching is not just a practice that captures police misconduct. Instead, copwatching can capture the extreme lengths of brutality committed by police. After the protests in response to Floyd’s death, Berkeley Copwatch had a surge in attendance at training seminars, illustrating how more people are willing to participate in copwatching.


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While we see this increase of interest in copwatching, the question is if it's actually effective? Alexandro Theodoropoulos, Editor of ImpactTalk, favours copwatching as he feels "journalism, whoever does it, (like citizen journalism) must hold everyone accountable as there is no other way to hold the police accountable."


He suggested that "the judge, in any case, will need evidence of police brutality or any violation in general, so journalism should be in a legal position to provide that".


However, with the increase of graphic videos circulating on social media and the media in general, some suggest that sharing and watching these videos has a mental impact on viewers. Chauncey Devega wrote for Salon after the death of Alton Sterling in July 2016, that it would be "psychologically and spiritually unhealthy for black Americans" to watch videos of police brutality.


LeRon Barton wrote for the Good Men Project about how "watching black men being beaten on video is the new lynching postcard." With these concerns being raised, it opens a moral debate about allowing these clips to be shared online. People are trying to hold officers to account, and sharing these clips is one way of doing so. Yet, it could also harm a viewer’s mental health and do the opposite of creating change.


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Another argument we need to consider is if the practice will ever achieve its main purpose, and if we will ever get to a point where copwatching isn’t required anymore. Copwatching has existed since the 1960s, yet we still see police misconduct and brutality.


In doing so, we start to question if copwatching is even improving the conduct of police - due to how long the method has been around and how we are still having conversations about police misconduct and brutality.


There’s uncertainty around whether copwatching will ever be an effective practice and genuinely curb police misconduct and brutality. But despite this uncertainty, what is certain is that there is a genuine conversation around copwatching, especially when we see debatable actions of police officers.


We saw how the police mishandled people at the Sarah Everard Vigil, how the police dealt with the Kill the Bill protestors, and how the police handled Manchester United protestors.


Phones and cameras are no longer used just to take nice pictures, videos and be disconnected from the political space. Instead, these objects are entrenched within the political space and are considered political tools to hold police officers and those in power to account.