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Formation1990; 30 years ago (1990)

Copwatch (also Cop Watch) is a network of activist organizations, typically autonomous and focused in local areas, in the United States and Canada (and to a lesser extent Europe) that observe and document police activity while looking for signs of police misconduct and police brutality. They believe that monitoring police activity on the streets is a way to prevent police brutality.[1]

The stated goal of at least one Copwatch group is to engage in monitoring and videotaping police activity in the interest of holding the police accountable in the events involving assaults or police misconduct.[2]

Copwatch was first started in Berkeley, California in 1990.[3]

Copwatch methods[edit]

The main function of most Copwatch groups is monitoring police activity. "Copwatchers" go out on foot or driving patrols in their communities and record interactions between the police, suspects, and civilians. Copwatchers hope that monitoring police activity will provide a deterrent against police misconduct. Some groups also patrol at protests and demonstrations to ensure that police do not violate the rights of protesters. One Copwatch organization states that it has a policy of non-interference with the police, although this may not be true for all groups.[4] In Phoenix, Arizona, copwatchers have increased efforts of "reverse surveillance" on the police in an effort to document racial profiling.[5] They believe that Arizona Senate Bill 1070, a controversial law that allows police to question people they believe are illegal immigrants, will increase racial profiling by police.[5]

Copwatch groups also hold "Know Your Rights" forums to educate the public about their legal and human rights when interacting with the police, and some groups organize events to highlight problems of police abuse in their communities.[6]

Constitutional right[edit]

Copwatch is supported through The First Amendment.[7] The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."[8] The interpretation of The First Amendment made by The United States Supreme Court allows citizens to assemble and spread information, and forbids the government to limit the available information for the public.[9] The First Amendment specifically mentions that the freedom of the press should not be abridged. The First Amendment was added in the Bill of Rights with the concept that it would protect free speech and the affairs of the government would be allowed to be discussed over public dispute. The gathering of information on government officials by press, and which is then made public, is enabled because it encourages "free discussion of governmental affairs". A public attentiveness in governmental affairs includes the actions of law enforcement.

Additionally, The First Amendment adds language about freedom of speech. The Supreme Court emphasizes that the public has the right of press, which means the public has the right of access, collection and distribution of information.[8]

The First Amendment includes protection rights of the people of the United States to criticize law enforcement and the performance of their duties.[10] The Supreme Court has clarified that civilian analysis has an incentive in a free society. Furthermore, a societal check upon state power deserves to be protected [11]

Response to the killing of Kendra James[edit]

In 2003, Kendra James was fatally shot by Portland, Oregon Officer Scott McCollister as she attempted to drive away from a traffic stop with Officer McCollister attempting to pull her out of the vehicle. After the shooting Copwatch offered a reward for a photograph of McCollister. It then produced and distributed posters bearing McCollister's photo and the phrase "Getting away with murder".

The editorial staff of Willamette Week opined that the poster was "inflamed rhetoric" which would harm "the relationship between the Portland police and the community it serves", and claimed that protest posters put up by the Rose City chapter of Copwatch were aimed at "inciting generalized anti-cop hysteria at the expense of informed criticism".[12]

A member of the Rose City Copwatch group, which seeks to "disrupt the polices [sic] ability to enforce race and class lines",[13] says that the shooting "demonstrate[s] a culture of racism and brutality that's really sort of at the core of policing".[14] A grand jury later found no criminal wrongdoing on McCollister's part.[15]

William Cardenas video[edit]

November 3, 2006: Video showing an LAPD officer striking William Cardenas 6 times in the face as he struggles to prevent the officers from handcuffing him.

On November 3, 2006, CopWatch LA posted a video showing the arrest of William Cardenas, whom police described as "a known gang member who had been wanted on a felony warrant for receiving stolen property". According to the arrest report, when officers tried to arrest Cardenas as he was drinking beer on the sidewalk with two others, he fled, but was caught and tripped by the officers, who then began to attempt to handcuff Cardenas as he fought with the officers to avoid being arrested.

The video, in which Cardenas struggles to prevent the police from handcuffing him, shows an officer repeatedly punching him in the face while trying to force his hands together. The officers indicated that they were unable to subdue Cardenas with pepper spray, which seemed to have "little effect", and that some of the punches were delivered in response to Cardenas putting his hand on one officer's gun holster during the struggle. According to the arrest report, several witnesses confirmed that Cardenas threw punches at the officers, who were only able to handcuff him after two of his friends arrived and told him to stop fighting.[16][17]

The circulation of this video led to nationwide media coverage of Copwatch, and, although the LAPD had begun a use-of-force investigation the same day as the arrest, prompted an additional investigation into police conduct by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.[18] A Superior Court commissioner had previously concluded that the use of force was reasonable because Cardenas was resisting arrest.[16]


In 2013 Berkeley Copwatch was awarded the James Madison Freedom of Information Award by the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter, for "effective use of public records to block a Homeland Security grant for putting an armored military vehicle on the streets of Albany and Berkeley."[19]


Joe Arpaio, the convicted former Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, known for widespread police brutality among his deputies and corrections officers[20], said that his opponents' videotaping of police during traffic stops "create safety concerns for his deputies."[21]

Tim Dees, former police officer and editor-in-chief of, alleges that Copwatch selectively distributes video and photographic media to "spin" incidents against law enforcement.[22]

List of local Copwatch organizations[edit]

The following is an inexhaustive list of local Copwatch organizations

Media coverage[edit]

On 2 August 2016, the BBC documentary NYPD: Biggest Gang in New York? aired on the British television channel BBC One, focusing on the activities of cop watchers in New York, including Ramsey Orta who filmed the death of Eric Garner.[30]

The documentary film Copwatch premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, which depicted the organization WeCopwatch, including segments on Ramsey Orta, Kevin Moore, who filmed the police abuse of Freddie Gray, and David Whitt who lived in the apartment complex where Michael Brown was killed, as well as Jacob Crawford, who seeded and co-founded Copwatch groups inspired by the Berkeley Copwatch group.[31]

On October 23, 2019, BET Network premiered show named Copwatch America. The network describes the docu-series as a "provocative look into police brutality and whistleblowers battling the issue".[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nicholas Mirzoeff (2002). The Visual Culture Reader, 2nd edition. Routledge. p. 390. ISBN 978-0-415-25222-5.
  2. ^ Torin Monahan (2006). Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life. Routledge. p. 152. ISBN 978-0-415-95393-1.
  3. ^ Schlief, Shelley L. (2007). "The Rodney King Beating Trial: A Landmark for Reform". In Chermak, Steven M.; Bailey, Frankie Y. (eds.). Crimes and Trials of the Century: From the Black Sox scandal to the Attica prison riots. 2. ABC-CLIO. pp. 139–60 [157]. ISBN 978-0-313-34110-6.
  4. ^ "About Phoenix Copwatch". Phoenix Copwatch. Archived from the original on September 7, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-27.
  5. ^ a b Emanuella Grinberg (May 11, 2010). "Cop-watchers look for racial profiling on the streets of Phoenix". CNN.
  6. ^ Michelle Chen (2005). "'Copwatch' Activists Patrol Communities to Thwart Police Misconduct". The New Standard. Retrieved 2008-11-27.
  7. ^ Shah, Raoul. “Cop-Watch: An Analysis of the Right to Record Police Activity and Its Limits.” Hamline Journal of Public Law & Policy, vol. 37, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 214–245. EBSCOhost,
  8. ^ a b U.S. Constitution. Art./Amend. I.
  9. ^ First Nat’l Bank v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 783, 98 S. Ct. 1407, 55 L. Ed. 2d 707 (1978).
  10. ^ City of Houston, Texas v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 461, 107 S. Ct. 2502, 96 L. Ed. 2d 398.
  11. ^ Colten v. Kentucky, 407 U.S. 104, 109, 92 S. Ct. 1953, 32 L. Ed. 2d 584 (1972).
  12. ^ WW Editorial Staff. "Portland's crazed leftists / Arissa / Rose City Copwatch". Willamette Week. Willamette Week. Retrieved 19 January 2017.
  13. ^ "What We Want". Rose City Copwatch. Retrieved 2011-07-23.
  14. ^ "Portland's crazed leftists / Arissa / Rose City Copwatch". Willamette Week. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 2004-04-14.
  15. ^ Maxine Bernstein. "Officer in James death to return to duty". Portland Oregonian. Retrieved 2008-10-06.
  16. ^ a b "Alleged LAPD Brutality Video Sparks Probe". CBS News. 2006-11-09. Retrieved 2006-11-10.
  17. ^ Richard Winton; Patrick McGreevy; Andrew Blankstein (2006-11-11). "Video, arrest report at odds". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2006-11-11.
  18. ^ Veiga, Alex (2006-11-13). " Video Prompts Probe of LAPD". USA Today. Associated Press. Retrieved 2006-11-13.
  19. ^ "Berkeleyans Receive Awards from Society of Professional Journalists". Michael O'Malley. Retrieved 8 July 2016.
  20. ^ Finnegan, William (July 13, 2009). "Sheriff Joe: Joe Arpaio is tough on prisoners and undocumented immigrants. What about crime?". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2020-03-24.
  21. ^ (October 20, 2009). "Nearly 70 arrested during Arpaio's West Valley crime sweeps". Archived from the original on October 21, 2009. Retrieved October 30, 2009.
  22. ^ Tim Dees. "Cop Watch". Archived from the original on 2008-06-14.
  23. ^ a b c d e Krupanski, Marc. "Policing the Police: Civilian Video Monitoring of Police Activity". The Global Journal. Retrieved 8 July 2016.
  24. ^ Anti Police Terror Project
  25. ^ Peaceful Streets Project
  26. ^ Washington, Shirley. "Copwatch opens office in Ferguson". Tribune Broadcasting. Retrieved 8 July 2016.
  27. ^ They’ve Been Filming the Police for Almost Two Decades. Meet America’s Copwatchers, Tim Stelloh, 4/4/2017, Fusion
  28. ^ People's Response Team
  29. ^ " - Policing the Police and Fighting Police Brutality". Retrieved 2019-01-26.
  30. ^ "NYPD: Biggest Gang in New York? - BBC Three". BBC. Retrieved 2016-08-02.
  31. ^ Copwatch | 2017 Tribeca Film Festival Guide
  32. ^ "BET Shines a light on Police Brutality with Copwatch America".

Further reading[edit]


External links[edit]