Copwatching" is the act of publicly observing and documenting police activity as a way of keeping our officers accountable. Copwatchers do not wish to interfere with police activity or to physically resist police misconduct. They observe and document instances of police interaction with the community.
Copwatching is absolutely necessary for any community to be safe. Without a way to check the power of the police, a community lives in a police state, where the cops decide whether what they are doing is right or wrong.
There are many forms of police accountability, such as civilian oversight committees, the legal system, the press and the police department's official complaint system. While these are useful and important, none of these systems can directly help someone who might be suffering at the hands of the police at any given moment (for example, the 50 people who have been killed by Sonoma County law enforcement or have died in custody since 1995).
Copwatch organizations often participate in rights-training workshops, where they share their knowledge of constitutional rights with the community. People who are familiar with these basic rights will often have a better chance of avoiding arrest or harassment, and knowledge of one's rights is certainly a fundamental necessity for any democratic society.
For example, Sonoma County law enforcement officers have been caught on tape refusing to identify themselves to a copwatcher either by name or by badge number, which they are required by law to do upon request. Robert Edmonds, a Santa Rosa resident who often participates in copwatching, has filed several harassment complaints against the Santa Rosa Police Department. Joe Willis, also of Santa Rosa, was arrested for observing the police at the weekly Wednesday Night Market event downtown.
Most recently, on May 1, 2008, activist Ben Saari was arrested for copwatching as the immigrant-rights protest/rally arrived at Juilliard Park. Santa Rosa police officers were moving a group of mostly Latino youth out of the park, threatening them with extended batons and attack dogs. Saari moved with the group, walking backward as he kept a video camera pointed at the agitated officers. Though he was doing nothing illegal, an officer gave him a warning. Saari asked if he was being arrested or detained, and the officer said no. When Saari refused to stop videotaping, the officer physically attacked him and arrested him without reading him his rights or giving him a reason for his arrest. He was later formally charged with interfering with a public officer.
There is no excuse for repressing the act of copwatching. Police officers are trained to handle extremely stressful situations, and having someone merely watching them should have no negative effect on their performance or the situation as a whole. When we are too afraid to question a police officer's actions, we are facing a fundamental social problem. Police are held accountable to their superiors (as we have seen from recent internal problems within the SRPD), to the courts, politicians and to the wealthy. But if police cannot be held accountable to regular people, the people they interact with the most, then they do not serve the purpose that we are told they serve.
If those in power wish to gain our trust, to convince us that the police are on our side or even convince us that the police are a necessary and positive presence in our communities, then local law enforcement must be accountable to regular people, and copwatching must be a part of everyday life in our communities.
Open Mic is now a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write [ mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org ]email@example.com.
The following local organizations are doing police-accountability work or are otherwise fighting against police brutality or harassment.
The County of Refuge Campaign works toward passing a sanctuary law for immigrants living in Sonoma County. This would prevent local law enforcement from collaborating with ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement, the federal immigration enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security). Local law enforcement has no legal requirement to aid or collaborate with this federal agency. 707.523.1740.
The Police Accountability Clinic and Hotline (PACH) is a Santa Rosa-based mutual aid organization that documents testimonies from those who have specific complaints about police officers. 707.542.PACH.
Santa Rosa Copwatch is a group of people who copwatch as an organization. 707.579.1605.
Sonomadefense.org is a website that, at the moment, serves to spread awareness about Ben Saari's case.