SF Bay Area Indymedia indymedia
About Contact Subscribe Calendar Publish Print Donate

North Bay / Marin | Police State and Prisons

"Watch The Cops" : copwatching and Sonoma County law enforcement
by Sonoma Defense Committee ( info [at] sonomadefense.org )
Tuesday Jun 10th, 2008 5:45 PM
A short history of copwatching and resistance to observation by policing agencies in Sonoma County over the last few years. In wake of the arrest of Benjamin Saari for copwatching on May 1st, there needs to be a noticeable public response to pressure the policing/"justice" establishments from to not reproduce and expand their repression against peaceful observers of police interactions in our communities.
"Watch the Cops"

"Copwatching" is the act of publicly observing and documenting police
activity as a way to keep them accountable. In other words, it's
watching the cops. People copwatch for lots of different reasons, for
example, if cops know they're being watched or video taped, they are
less likely to harass or abuse the person they're interacting with for
fear of getting caught in the act. Another reason to copwatch is
simply because it's important to keep track of what cops do, because
they are public officers who we pay (via taxes) to keep us safe, so
they better be doing what we want them to be doing. Some people
copwatch as a way to build community resistance by spreading an idea
that doesn't have much legitimacy in mainstream politics - the idea
that the system of police, as a whole, may not be on our side.
Whatever the reason, Copwatch groups continue to pop up all over the
country.

The origin of copwatching may be arbitrary, so it won't be examined
very much here. You could say it started in the 1960s with the Black
Panther Party, who recognized that their communities in fact needed
protection from the violent, racist, corrupt police who would
regularly terrorize black communities in Oakland. You could say it
started in Berkeley in 1990 when the first group calling themselves
Copwatch appeared. You could say it started any time a community
wanted to monitor the actions of their law enforcement agencies on a
street level. The term "copwatching" itself is arbitrary, but will be
used here as an all-encompassing word which refers to the act of
observing and documenting police activity for the purpose of
accountability. 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. If
the cops are not being checked by the public, they could theoretically
get away with whatever they want (and often times, do). If the police
are law enforcement, there needs to be someone making sure they are
enforcing their own laws on themselves. Without a way to check the
power of the police, a community is living 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 aspects of police accountability, none of these systems can
directly help someone who is suffering at the hands of the police at
any given moment. Copwatching is the only way to directly observe what
police are doing on the streets that they are hired to protect. It is
also unique in that it does not require the services of any
institution or enterprise, and is accessible to anyone, even those who
are disenfranchised, have limited access to these services or
institutions, or are hesitant to use them for whatever reason.

Copwatch organizations (as opposed to lower-case copwatching, which
merely describes the act) 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.

So what's the problem?

The phenomenon of organized Copwatching exposes some important truths
about the role of police in society. Police often ignore, slander,
harass, and even arrest copwatchers who use their constitutional right
to observe the police from a safe distance. In Santa Rosa alone there
have been many instances of people being harassed or arrested for
legally observing police activity. Participants of Santa Rosa
Copwatch, a copwatching organization, share stories of police
conspicuously photographing them, following them, or attempting to
interrogate them or discredit them (for example, during public events,
individual police officers will often position themselves in places
that make it seem like copwatchers are participating in police
activity, therefore discrediting them to the community members at the
event). Sonoma County law enforcement officers have been caught on
tape numerous times refusing to identify themselves to a copwatcher
(either by name or by badge number, which they are required to do, by
law, on request). Robert Edmonds, a resident of Santa Rosa 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. In some of these instances, interfering
with police activity is cited as a reason for the cops' actions. In
others, the police admit that it is the very act of observing them
that resulted in their taking action against copwatchers. The
punishment for copwatching can be even more severe for those who are
at a social, political, or economic disadvantage. Being on parole,
probation, being an immigrant subject to deportation, being homeless,
being on the arbitrary and racist Gang Database, or having a mental
illness are all things that can keep people in fear of copwatching
(and singled out as a target for arrest) as long as it is
criminalized.

Most recently, on May 1st, 2008, Ben Saari was arrested for
copwatching as the immigrants rights and Free Trade awareness
protest/rally arrived at Julliard 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 backwards as he kept a video camera pointed at
the agitated cops. The officer gave him a warning (though he was doing
nothing illegal). Saari asked if he was being arrested or detained,
and the officer said no. When Saari refused to stop video taping, 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
someone watching them should have no negative effect on their
performance or the situation as a whole. When we are convinced to stay
inside our homes as the police harass someone down the block, to look
the other way as we drive by the cops kicking homeless people out of
Downtown, when we are too afraid to question a police officer's
actions, we are facing a fundamental social problem. Police are, in
fact, held accountable to their superiors (as we have seen from recent
internal problems within SRPD), to the courts, politicians, and the
wealthy. But if police cannot be held accountable to regular people,
to the people they interact with the most, to the vast majority of
society, then they do not serve the purpose that we are told they
serve. They are not here to protect US, or to serve US. They are here
to carry out the orders of those they are accountable to, to shut down
all-ages music venues in downtown Santa Rosa, to disperse crowds of
Latino youth, to harass homeless people, to help federal Immigration
agents deport innocent people, to make sure nobody is watching. If
those in power wish to gain our trust, to convince us that the police
are on our side, or even to 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 every-day life in our communities.

-------

The following local organizations are doing police accountability work
or are otherwise fighting against police brutality or harassment. They
are not necessarily co-signers to this article.

Santa Rosa Copwatch is a group of people who copwatch as an
organization. 707 579 1605

The Police Accountability Clinic and Hotline (PACH) is a Santa
Rosa-based legal help organization that documents testimonies from
those who have specific complaints about police officers. 707-542-PACH

The County of Refuge Campaign works towards 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

Sonomadefense.org is a website that, at the moment, serves to spread
awareness about Ben Saari's case.
LATEST COMMENTS ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
Listed below are the latest comments posted about this article.
These comments are anonymously submitted by website visitors.
TITLE AUTHOR DATE
Open season on the mentally illMegTuesday Jul 8th, 2008 9:36 PM