On a warm Wednesday morning in late October, three men piled into a gray-blue Dodge van and drove to a cafe in an upscale section of north St. Louis. The van was old, the kind that squeaks and shakes and rumbles as if it’s going to burst at any moment, Looney Tunes-style, and as the men pulled over and jumped out, they were instantly surrounded by a dozen or so cops in Kevlar vests. The officers’ guns were trained on them as they ordered the group to the ground. Once there, the police wrapped their wrists in steel bracelets.
One of the men lying face down was Jacob Crawford, a 38-year-old former hip hop video producer and investigator for a prominent San Francisco civil rights attorney. Crawford, the one white person in the group, is also a well-known copwatcher, a police accountability activist with roots in the radical self-defense movements of the 1960s: the Deacons for Defense in the south, the Black Panthers in Oakland, the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis. Copwatching is Crawford’s full-time job, and one of the other handcuffed men was his close friend and colleague, David Whitt, who is 37 and black.
Through an organization Crawford founded in 2013, WeCopwatch, the two of them observe and record law enforcement encounters and advocate for civilians who do the same; they’re also trying to catapult the practice into the 21st century. Amid the sustained burst of violent police confrontations captured on tiny digital cameras and hurled across the internet—and into an uncertain future under a president who dismissed the Black Lives Matter movement as people “looking for trouble”—they teach best practices through in-person trainings and a series of online classes, “Copwatch College,” set to launch this summer.
The events of that October morning, which Whitt and Crawford recounted to me later, weren’t unique. The two men have been arrested, jailed and, they allege, targeted in other ways for their work. The same night Crawford photographed police officers monitoring a Trayvon Martin protest in Oakland four years ago, for instance, he was cited for jaywalking and handcuffed. So Crawford, who has the calibrated righteousness of a shrewd but convincing defense lawyer, sued, arguing in court documents that such infractions were designed to not only have a chilling effect, but to allow police to gather personal details on protesters, journalists, and copwatchers. Authorities disputed this, but the ticket was dismissed and the city paid him $9,500, a sum Crawford says he gave to his lawyer.
Despite such encounters, WeCopwatch is ambitious: After Michael Brown was killed, the group raised thousands of dollars to arm residents in Ferguson with body cameras, a tactic it replicated in the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline. And WeCopwatch has never been more in demand. A feature-length documentary about them is premiering at Tribeca Film Festival this month, and its members’ views on copwatching and policing have been solicited by professors, lawyers, human rights activists and news organizations as varied as Newsmax and Democracy Now.
The group can appear more confrontational than its mission suggests—some of its members have been criticized as overly aggressive—but they’ve also won the respect of at least one (formerly) high-placed local law enforcement official, the former Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson. In the aftermath of Brown’s killing, he told a local reporter that he’d instructed his officers not to interfere with them: “The idea of private citizens filming the police doing their jobs—I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he said.
It’s unclear what the officers who had Crawford and Whitt sprawled across the pavement think of copwatching generally or WeCopwatch specifically. Despite requests for comment, a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman would only say the department is “familiar” with the group.
Slightly more clear is who the cops were after. The third guy in the van on that October morning, Edwin Shinell, wasn’t a WeCopwatch member. Whitt had contacted him only a few days before, after seeing cell phone footage posted online called “Black man goes to jail for spitting on the ground,” a roughly six-minute clip that shows an increasingly hostile confrontation between Shinell and several white St. Louis police officers. (Citing the case’s open status, the St. Louis police spokeswoman, Leah Freeman, declined to comment on the case.)
Crawford says he always advises de-escalation in such confrontations, but to him and Whitt, the cops’ behavior toward Shinell seemed personal. So Whitt reached out and asked Shinell if he’d want to talk to a lawyer. On that Wednesday morning, Shinell called back. He sounded nervous. There were plainclothes officers monitoring his home, Whitt says Shinell told him. “He was in fear for his life,” Crawford adds. “We wanted to pull him in, let him know he’s not alone.”
So Whitt and Crawford drove from the five-bedroom home office they share with Whitt’s wife and four of his children, in St. Louis’ bleak West End, to Shinell’s house a few miles away. From there, they crossed the so-called Delmar divide, the avenue that separates their neighborhood from the posh Central West End, where they planned to order drinks that morning.
After the group was handcuffed, Shinell was arrested and Whitt was detained; both were taken to police headquarters. Crawford, however, was released, and in the encounter’s confused aftermath, he snatched his handheld Panasonic video camera and began documenting the scene, asking for officers’ names and badge numbers.
It wasn’t immediately clear why Whitt was being taken to jail, but in Crawford’s footage, one of the officers said Shinell was seen carrying a rifle in the street earlier that day. Later, he’d be charged with transporting a carbine rifle across state lines, a federal offense since he has a felony on his record. (He initially contested the charge, though last month he agreed to plead guilty.)
Still, to Crawford, the timing seemed suspect: It came just five days after the spitting incident. Plus, there were the plainclothes cops who Shinell said were outside his house. Why were they there?
Perhaps they’d seen another video that appears to belong to Shinell. Neither he nor his lawyer would talk to me for this story, but the video was posted just a few months after the killings of eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge—and just one day after the spitting footage. It shows a man with a black bandana wrapped around his face loading bullets into the clip of a pistol. After calling on gangsters of all affiliations to join him, he says: “We are at war. I ain’t gonna’ just sit around.”
“You kill nine of our people,” he adds in a second video. “I’m trying to wipe out 18 of yours.”
When I ask Crawford about the videos, he says that while some of what Shinell said might be controversial, he was pretty sure it was protected speech. Later, Crawford says that WeCopwatch wasn’t there to judge.
“We’re there to make sure that court isn’t held in the streets by the cops who are supposed to be objective during the course of their duties,” he says.
Crawford was born far from St. Louis. Originally from Connecticut, he attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where he studied psychology and documentary filmmaking. He says he had his own traumas with the justice system when he was in his teens—he declined to discuss details, other than to say he was in the wrong place at the wrong time—but when he arrived in the Bay Area in 2000, he instantly noticed the disparity in how police treated minorities there. He was also aware of the power of a decently-composed video in these encounters; nine years earlier, a plumber named George Holliday filmed a group of police officers viciously beating Rodney King.
“Seeing it right in front of me and knowing I had a camera and being in the birthplace of the Black Panthers, I was drawing the connections,” Crawford says.
But he didn’t know the first thing about watching the cops. So Crawford called around—to lawyers, to a police oversight board, and to Berkeley Copwatch, a group founded in 1990 to document the mistreatment of homeless people. “They said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got the right, but the review board said you might not want to say you’re copwatching because these cops out here can do anything.’” The advice wasn’t hyperbole. The city’s police department has been under federal supervision since 2003, after the city settled a lawsuit alleging a crew of cops dubbed The Riders fabricated evidence, beat up suspects, and committed other crimes.
Copwatching may have been legal, but technologically it was another era. There were no smartphones. There was no YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. Andrea Prichett, the Berkeley Copwatch cofounder, recalls that activists relied on cumbersome recordings and labor-intensive videotaping. In her view, this hardly mattered. “Our primary goal was to witness,” she says.
Crawford’s initial setup was covert. He stuck a piece of tape over the camera’s record light, then jimmied it to sit just above the sunroof of his Volvo station wagon. He’d watch what was happening on a tiny 12 volt-powered television. Eventually, Crawford became more comfortable approaching stops on foot, and developed a routine drawn in part from Berkeley Copwatch: He’d move slowly, so as to not spook a potentially already-spooked officer. With his camera out, he sometimes wouldn’t have to say anything, as long as he was seen by both the cop and the citizen. Other times he’d announce himself. Afterwards, he’d provide his card, and if there was an arrest, he’d offer footage.
Tyrone Jones, an Oakland rapper who goes by Kuzzo Fly, first met Crawford in the early 2000s, after Crawford filmed several police officers holding Jones and his sobbing young son at gunpoint in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. Jones, who is 38, was impressed. Crawford “didn’t back down,” the rapper recalls. “He stood his ground.” James Chanin, a civil rights attorney who knows Crawford, describes him this way: “He was very dedicated. I think he earned the dislike of many of the police officers because he was in their face a lot in a very single-minded way to get what he thought was right.”
Crawford compiled much of his early footage, including the clip of Jones and his son, into a first-of-its-kind, 50-minute documentary called These Streets Are Watching. Released in December 2004, the film shows copwatchers operating in Denver, Cincinnati, and Berkeley, and offers an artful tutorial on how to do it effectively. It also shows officers’ wide-ranging responses to copwatchers. One policeman, for instance, appears to offer his name and card without prompting; another identifies himself as John Doe.
The film’s most dramatic moment shows Crawford’s own arrest during a block party in Cincinnati in 2003. When an officer in the neighborhood radioed for assistance, two patrol cars barreled toward the scene, driving around a barricade, into the party and directly toward Crawford, who was standing in the street filming. The officers arrested him for obstruction, and one of them later alleged that she had to stop three times because he kept darting in front of them, apparently in an effort to block their path, a local weekly reported.
But Crawford’s own camera was left running inside the patrol car after his arrest, and in footage included in These Streets, one of the officers angrily shouted that he’d done just the opposite—that he’d remained frozen in front of them: “You do not stand in front of a fucking police car!” the officer shouts. Crawford apologizes, but the officer yells again. “Bullshit!” she says. “You’re not sorry.”
Crawford opted for a bench trial. After two days, he was acquitted.
Crawford was telling me about this at WeCopwatch’s headquarters, shortly after the arrest at the coffee shop. Whitt was there, too. He’d been released a few hours earlier, but he was fuming. It was the second time he’d been hassled by the police since August.
Whitt, who is 37, is every bit Crawford’s foil—gregarious, a bit absent-minded, at times hot-headed. Like Crawford, he grew up far from St. Louis, just north of the D.C.-Maryland border. When he was 20 he went to prison for nearly seven years for carjacking and kidnapping, but by the time he met Crawford in the summer of 2014, he’d gotten married, had five kids (one of whom lives in Texas with an ex), moved to Missouri and secured a steady job as a groundskeeper at a local high school. As Whitt recalled his recent problems with the law, he twisted his shoulder-length dreads and grinned widely.
The first charge, interfering, occurred on the morning of August 8, when Whitt was filming an arrest near their house. An officer ordered him to back up, so he says he did; when he was told to keep moving, he says, he told the officer to establish a perimeter. Then he was arrested. Outside the coffee shop earlier that day, Whitt says he became a victim of mistaken identity: He was detained on a theft warrant and held at the downtown jail until an officer compared his face to the picture of the man in the warrant—a man whose last name was White, Whitt says. (Freeman, the police spokeswoman, declined to discuss the cases. Whitt says he is fighting the August charge in court.)
Shinell was still sitting in jail, though. So Crawford, Whitt, and a couple of volunteers assembled around a large wooden table and hustled to gather the details of his arrest, to find him a lawyer, and to immediately dispatch that lawyer to the jail. They dialed cell phones, punched keyboards, fired off texts. In the background was the clatter of Whitt’s two young sons and daughter galloping around the house; his wife, Aurellia, cradled their youngest, an infant girl. When someone in the group reached a lawyer, Crawford provided a simple message to deliver to Shinell: “Tell him not to talk to the cops at all.”
As the night wore on, the mood was vigilant bordering on paranoid. Crawford frequently peeked out of a curtainless window and contemplated covering the view into the narrow alley behind it, an alley where a surveillance camera of unknown origin—their block is mostly vacant—had recently appeared, then vanished, he says.
When I returned early the next morning, Crawford was still at the window. Two patrol SUVs cruised by the night before, he says. They stopped at one of the vacant houses, then moved on to their home; one of them aimed the vehicle’s spotlight on it. Whitt and Crawford grabbed their cameras, darted outside, and started filming. Nobody said anything, Crawford says, but to him, it seemed like intimidation.
Freeman did not respond to questions about the surveillance camera, nor would she comment on the encounter with the patrol officers. A service log provided by the department says, simply, that a call for an “investigation” on the WeCopwatch block arrived at 12:57 a.m. and ended 24 minutes later. No other details were included.
Crawford wound up in Missouri after 14 years of copwatching in Oakland. He’d gone from working various day jobs to producing videos for Oakland’s burgeoning hip hop scene, a gig that at once paid his bills (he charged $400 a pop for artists working under the legendary late Mac Dre) and provided access to the most policed neighborhoods in the city. Tyrone Jones, who introduced Crawford to the scene, says he could have earned good money if he’d stayed put. But, he points out: “His passion was always copwatching and trying to police the police.”
Then, in the spring of 2012, a civil rights lawyer and president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, Rachel Lederman, put out a call for video of local Occupy demonstrations. Several protesters had been tear-gassed and hit with lead-filled bean bags, and she wanted help identifying the cops who’d injured them, Crawford says. They worked together, and the city settled for $1.1 million. Later, he worked on a case that drew headlines around the planet: During the same protests, a marine veteran named Scott Olsen was struck in the head with a bean bag round, leaving him with a fractured skull and permanent brain damage. When a crowd was gathering to assist Olsen, another officer tossed a concussion grenade at them. Crawford helped identify the second cop and the city settled for $4.5 million.
As Crawford was settling into life as a full-time investigator for Lederman, Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson. The explosive reaction that followed reminded him of what he’d seen a few years before in Oakland, after a white transit officer killed a 22-year-old unarmed black man named Oscar Grant. “People are taking a stance,” he says. So he caught a flight to Missouri. On his second day there, not far from the now-blackened square of re-paved street where Brown’s body was left for four hours, he saw a tall wiry man wearing a white t-shirt scrawled with a rainbow-colored handwritten message: “Stand on your rights for freedom.”
It was David Whitt, who was then a resident of Canfield Green, the apartment complex that Brown was walking through when he was killed. Whitt was part of an effort to organize a peaceful mourning process and neighborhood patrol for the swarms of people arriving at a memorial for Brown, a rapidly expanding collection of teddy bears and mylar balloons and roses.
Crawford saw a kindred spirit in Whitt. Though Whitt had spent plenty of time observing police encounters—“I’ve been copwatching my whole life; I just didn’t have a camera,” he says—he’d never studied it as a craft. He’d never even heard the phrase. But when Crawford needed a place to crash, Whitt offered the living room floor of his two-bedroom apartment.
That first night, they stayed up drinking a bottle of wine and watching These Streets. Whitt liked what he saw. “I was practicing a form of copwatching, not knowing it was copwatching,” he recalls. “As I learned more—actually going out on shifts and watching the cops, the language they use...that’s the best thing in the world.” Crawford puts it this way: “I’d never met anyone as passionate about watching the police as me.” He pauses, then adds, “Or maybe as sick and twisted, you know?”
The pair got to work immediately. On that first night they launched an online fundraiser that included video and stills from Ferguson. By the next morning, they’d raised $1,000 and picked up four handheld cameras from Best Buy. The money kept coming, and by September they’d bought 110 body cameras that were to be distributed throughout Canfield Green.
On the morning of September 23, Crawford and Whitt awoke to a bang on the front door and someone shouting about the fire tearing through Michael Brown’s memorial. The sun hadn’t yet risen, but as Crawford flipped on his camera and ran toward the flames, the scene came into focus: towers of gray smoke swirl above an orange glow. In the video, sirens are in the background, and as Crawford wheels around the fire, a uniformed officer—one of a handful standing nearby, watching—tells him to be careful. Whitt, his voice seething, shouts back: “Ain’t no be careful. We good, man.” Crawford confronts them, too, asking if they’d lit the match. “Absolutely not,” one says. (Ex-Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said in a press release the cause of the fire was being investigated. A department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)
The fire occurred three days after Crawford and Whitt held their first copwatch training in Canfield Green, distributing to each participant a copy of These Streets and a pocket-size “know your rights” card. They also got a body camera, a technology that Crawford believed could help solve the getting-shot-while-reaching-for-your-cell-phone problem. Their efforts drew attention from local and national media, and they worried the fire might have been set in retaliation. People in the neighborhood were angry, and Crawford and Whitt also worried that their fury might explode.
“Dave and I had a real quick huddle,” Crawford recalls. “And Dave made the announcement that we were going to order 100 more body cameras.”
In the weeks that followed, Crawford returned home and Whitt kicked up his training schedule. He’d quit his groundskeeper job and was holding at times more than two sessions a day at an hour or two a piece. Often, he was making house calls, catching people whenever he could.
David Royal, who owns a landscaping business and lived at Canfield Green at the time—and helped Whitt with some of the trainings—says that at first he was ambivalent about the cameras. “I thought it was cool to get a little bit of strength in everybody’s hands,” he recalls. But the cameras weren’t all that popular. Then he realized how much the training was paying off.
“You would still see them out there with their cell phones,” Royal says. “The message was hitting home: Things are going on and we need a record. Keep your camera out.”
Two days after the arrests in front of the coffee shop, Crawford and Whitt returned to the intersection with a stack of letters. They’d traded their black copwatch sweatshirts for something a bit more formal—a tweed sport coat for Crawford, an orange striped polo for Whitt—as they canvassed businesses in search of surveillance footage. They were looking for anything depicting the police officers who’d pounced on them, and the letters put those businesses on notice: They were now legally required to preserve any video they might have.
Such legal heavy lifting has become an important part of what WeCopwatch does in St. Louis. Crawford moved out permanently in 2015, after his roommate died from a lengthy bout of cancer and after Whitt and his family were booted from Canfield Green. (The president of the apartment complex’s management company, Randy Lipton, says that Whitt owed thousands of dollars in back rent; Whitt, however, claims the company stopped taking his payments because of his copwatching and neighborhood patrol work. Lipton denies this.)
With a combination of some of Crawford’s own savings and modest funding from donors who Crawford would only identify as “people who are passionate” about police accountability, he bought two houses for under $20,000—the home-office and a nearby storefront where they plan to hold copwatch trainings. Crawford is also developing Copwatch College, a five-class course to be launched online, free of charge, this summer. Among other things, it will teach a history of police, understanding the constitution and how to effectively document police encounters.
Amid other high-profile police killings, Crawford and Whitt also began traveling to the cities that were becoming hot spots in an emerging movement: New York City after Eric Garner; Baltimore after Freddie Gray; North Charleston after Walter Scott. They held trainings and reached out to the people who’d forced these deaths into public view. Soon, they were working with Ramsey Orta, who captured the chokehold death of Eric Garner, and Kevin Moore, the corner store worker from Baltimore who filmed police officers dragging his friend, Freddie Gray, into the police van where he died.
Not that WeCopwatch hasn’t gotten pushback. After Moore was recorded by a New York Times reporter taunting a Baltimore police officer (“Without that gun and a badge you a bitch and a half”), Andrea Prichett, of Berkeley Copwatch, reacted to the footage for a short Times video.
“I love these guys because they’re willing to stand up and so many are not,” she said. But “if you’re out there trying to model good copwatching, it looks a lot different than this sometimes.”
Randy Lipton accused Whitt of what seemed like another breach of the group’s be-on-your-best-behavior mantra: Before Whitt was kicked out of his apartment, Lipton says, he threatened employees at the complex, telling them that they shouldn’t call the police because he was “the law at Canfield Green.”
Crawford says there’s “no proof” that Whitt threatened anyone, though amid deteriorated community-police relations, he says that Whitt and others encouraged people to find alternatives to dialing 911. Moore declined to talk to me, but when I ask Crawford about the Times clip, he says it was shown to Prichett out of context—that Moore wasn’t copwatching when the footage was recorded, shortly after Freddie Gray’s death, at a police barricade during what appears to be a protest. “His friend had just died, and he [was] speaking his mind,” Crawford says.
Back in St. Louis, Crawford wasn’t sure what was next for WeCopwatch. To him, Copwatch College represents something big, the evolution of a project that began with These Streets. “I told myself when I was young that when everyone in the country knew what copwatch was I was retiring,” he says. “Because that meant they knew their rights. That meant they knew that they had the right to watch the police. And that’s the type of consciousness that we need to create social change. We’re almost there right now.”
When I ask Crawford to square that last part with the seemingly ever-present hazards copwatchers face, he says their ideas about consciousness-raising don’t apply to the authorities.
“The police will always wage a low-intensity war on copwatching,” he says. Instead, for the generation of copwatchers coming up in the shadow of Brown, Garner, and other victims of fatal police encounters, Crawford says, the most important thing they can teach is safety.
“We’re not just doing this because we care about copwatchers,” he says. “We want copwatchers to go out and make it safe for anybody who’s exercising their rights and filming the police.”