Copwatch is a loosely affiliated international network of community-based organizations comprising volunteers who patrol neighborhoods and video record public interactions between law enforcement and citizens. While various Copwatch groups are motivated by distinct political views, Copwatching is broadly understood to be method of deterring police misconduct and increasing police accountability via surveillance of police activity, as the practice of Copwatching was developed to enable community-based organizations to exercise power over the police and hold them accountable for abuse of authority. Copwatch videos are typically posted on YouTube or other social media and/or submitted as evidence of police misconduct in a court of law, but some have objected that the practice of Copwatching violates privacy.

Since 1990, more than 50 Copwatch organizations have formed in North America, Europe, and Australia. Today, with the proliferation of camera phones, Copwatching is so ubiquitous that it has emerged as a social practice that is commonly carried out by individuals who have no affiliation with a Copwatch organization. While it is generally accepted that Copwatching has had positive effects on police accountability worldwide, critics argue that Copwatching can have the unintended consequence of inducing intensified police action. Two important legal cases concerning Copwatching activities are Bandele v. City of New York (2007) and Glik v. Cunniffe et al. (2011) .

In 1990, a group of activists in Berkeley, California, began patrolling Telegraph Avenue to document police activity in response to growing concerns about police harassment of homeless people of color. While this group would become the first Copwatch organization, in 1966 the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) had already organized citizen patrols to monitor police activity in Oakland and Berkeley, California. During these patrols, BPP members exercised their legal right to carry loaded firearms until that right was revoked by the passage of the 1967 Milford Act. In contrast to the BPP, Berkeley Copwatch, from its inception, has been committed to the philosophy of nonviolence, as well as to policies of noninterference with police activity and de-escalation. In addition to fostering police accountability, the organization uses Copwatching as a method of community building and political education.

While Berkeley Copwatch has produced the Copwatch Handbook and regularly provides technical assistance for aspiring Copwatchers, it emphasizes that knowledge of local conditions should inform and determine the specific tactics employed by emergent Copwatch initiatives. Commonly used tactics for Copwatchers across the globe include, but are not limited to, recording instances of police misconduct from an approximate distance of 20 feet, patrolling in pairs, patrolling at unpredictable times, avoiding recording civilians in the act of committing crimes, working with police review boards (when available), posting videos on social media sites such as YouTube, and using police scanners to monitor police communications.

In addition to direct monitoring, many Copwatch organizations perform activities such as maintaining local databases of reports of police misconduct, conducting independent investigations into claims of police misconduct, producing research about important community issues, conducting “know your rights” trainings with members of the community, and hosting fund-raisers to support victims of police brutality. In 2007, Berkeley Copwatch hosted the first International Copwatching Conference. Winnipeg Copwatch in Manitoba, Canada, hosted the second conference in 2011.

Bandele v. City of New York is a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of Lumumba Bandele, Djibril Toure, and David Floyd, three members of the Brooklyn, New York–based Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, who were arrested in 2005 for Copwatching. Toure was charged with assaulting a police officer, while all three men were charged with obstruction and resisting arrest. The recovered video footage absolved the Copwatchers of any wrongdoing, and in 2006 all charges against the men were dropped. This case is significant in that it reveals how the act of Copwatching itself has become criminalized.

In 2011, several Copwatch organizations and CCR filed Glik v. Cunniffe et al., a brief that appeared in the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in response to Simon Glik’s arrest in 2007 for recording an instance of police brutality with his cell phone. The charges against Glik were eventually dropped, and the court determined that private citizens have the right to record public officials performing their jobs in public places and that the arrest of citizens for this activity constitutes a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In 2012, Glik v. Cunniffe et al. was cited by the U.S. Department of Justice when it upheld the right of citizens to record public police conduct.

Orisanmi Burton and Charles Price

See also Cell Phone Tracking ; Policing and Society ; Smartphones ; Sousveillance ; Synopticon, The

Further Readings

Bandele v. City of New York, No. 1:07-cv-03339 (S.D.N.Y. 2007)

Berkeley Copwatch. Copwatch Handbook: An Introduction to Citizen Monitoring of the Police (n.d.). (Accessed September 2017).

Glik v. Cunniffe, No. 10-.1764, 2011 WL 3769092 (1st Cir. Aug. 26, 2011).

Huey, Laura, et al. “Cop Watching in the Downtown Eastside: Exploring the Use of (Counter) Surveillance as a Tool of Resistance.” In Torin Monahan (ed.), Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Prichett, Andrea and Annie Paradise. “The Criminalization of Copwatching: Berkeley Copwatch Report on State Violence, Police Repression and Attacks on Direct Monitoring.” (Accessed October 2014).

Wilson, Dean Jonathon and Tanya Serisier. “Video Activism and the Ambiguities of Counter-Surveillance.” Surveillance & Society, v.8/2 (2010).