When civilians observe or film police as a way to check their power, they’re called “cop watchers.” The practice is rooted in Berkeley, California, where in 1990, residents formed a coalition to observe law enforcement after they witnessed local homeless and youth of color being harassed by police.
On Wednesday, New York City’s Police Commissioner William Bratton criticized civilians who film the police. “I would almost describe it as an epidemic in this country,” he said, according to the New York Daily News. The city’s top cop explained that often these videos are only a snapshot of an incident, the Daily News reported. But cop watchers believe that filming the police is a successful and necessary tool for exposing America’s police officers when they are behaving badly.
“Cop watching is a way of preventing situations from escalating. Any experienced cop watcher isn’t about a ‘gotcha moment,’” said Keegan Stephan, editor at FilmTheCops.News, a website that documents police involved shootings. Filming the police, Stephan said, is a very open and explicit practice with the goal of “de-escalating violence,” not inciting it.
The NYPD commissioner was responding to a recent viral video that captured Officer Risel Martinez pointing his gun at onlookers and punching a person who was filming the incident. Officer Martinez has been stripped of his badge and the case is being investigated, according to reports. The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bratton wasn’t defending the officer, said the Daily News, but did use the opportunity to talk about filming the police. “There is increasing efforts on the part of individuals — sometimes in a crowd and often times mobs — to attempt to record, intimidate and create fear and physically free a prisoner, ” Bratton said.
Steve Kohut, a native New Yorker and an official cop watcher with the grassroots organization The Justice Committee, disagrees. “We’re definitely watched by the cops, so what’s the problem with watching them?” he asked me over the phone Thursday. “We’re within our rights, we’re not trying to interfere with interactions, and we’re not trying to free prisoners,” he explained, refuting the commissioner’s claim. “We’re just trying to observe and make sure people are not abused or have their rights violated,” adding “[Bratton] wants to say we’re a mob, we’re not a mob.”
Stephan also disagreed with the way civilians who film police were characterized by the chief of police. “[Bratton’s] comments conflated a whole lot of different things that go way beyond filming the police,” said Stephan. “[Bratton] was talking about people interfering with police and un-arresting people,” he continued. “Those are separate issues and I think he was conflating on purpose to demonize cop watchers.”
Filming the police, Stephan said, isn’t an antagonizing tactic, it’s centered around prevention. “When people will film the police antagonize homeless people, cops tend to back off and leave,” Stephan said of the positive outcomes of cop watching. “That’s the ideal situation for recording police, not a gotcha moment.”
“Cop watching is not about the cops,” said Kohut. “We’re not out there watching the cops. We’re out there to help low-income [people], LGBT people, street vendors, day laborers, stuff like that,” he said. “We’re not looking for the cops—we’re looking to save the community from what happens to them at the hands of the cops.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.