One Year Behind The Camera
by Heather Villalobos and Brannon Lockrem, Phoenix


It has been well over a year since Phoenix Copwatch started putting up their "Who Got the Camera?" fliers around Phoenix. They seemed to be everywhere: local colleges, record stores, and coffee shops. People could be overheard saying, " What kind of crazy people go out and videotape the police?" But looking back at Copwatch's first year, it's clear that it's not the members of Copwatch who are crazy but the persistence of police brutality that is.

Phoenix Copwatch began quietly over two years ago when members of a local activist group, Ruckus, decided to do something to thwart police brutality and fight institutional whiteism in the Valley. After long hours spent researching the law, police procedures, and other Copwatches nationwide, Phoenix Copwatch was born. On October 22, 1998, at a local march for National "Stop Police Brutality" Day, Ruckus held a political forum on police brutality hoping to recruit new members. As the signup list filled with names, the question "Who Got the Camera?" finally had its answer: Copwatch has the camera.

Copwatch is made up of a variety of people from various backgrounds and political schools of thought. However, one common belief is held in the hearts of all its members: something must be done about police brutality.

Last February marked the one-year anniversary of Copwatch patrols. We have been doing patrols all over the Phoenix area, though we are more known for our foot patrols on Mill Avenue in Tempe, a college town next to Phoenix. Our work has been featured in the December 1999 Phoenix New Times, a free alternative newsweekly, and two five-minute spots on Channel 15 news. And we are nowhere near finished.

One might ask what exactly we hope to accomplish by turning a camera on the police. The answer is simple: we are addressing the problem of police brutality by going to where it happens-the streets. By turning on a camera, we change the attitude of the cops toward the people they have pulled over. We even change the way they stand and talk. Not only do the police know we are out there, but the people they are harassing know that we are there, too. Frequently, after an intervention the people stopped by the police will thank us. They say they feel much safer when we are there, and they feel that the police respect their rights better when they know their actions are being taped.

Videotaping police activities is not our only goal. Another goal is to make the community aware that police brutality does exist so that the question, "Does police brutality happen here?" is replaced by the question, "What can I do to prevent police brutality?" We would also like to see the end of Valley police's "shoot to kill" policies that wrongfully end the lives of people who didn't get a fair trial when the cop who shot them wanted to play judge, jury and executioner. We would also like to see the creation of local civilian review boards, whose purpose would be to investigate police complaints without the interference of inter-departmental politics or the blue wall of silence that the police hide behind all too often.

We not only patrol the streets, we also go along with groups who hold protests and marches. Copwatch participated in the 1999 anti-sidewalk ordinance sit-in on Mill Avenue, in which local lawmakers made it a crime to sit on the sidewalk-a law explicitly designed to harass homeless youth. We also went out with the Progressive Student Union and AZDAC (Arizona Direct Action Coalition) to protest the unjust imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Last February we accompanied a group of motorcyclists on their annual "Prison Ride" to Florence. Demonstrations such as these historically have been targets for police harassment and abuse: it is for this reason that we patrol them.

In Copwatch's inaugural year, we have measured our successes not by catching brutality on tape or the amount of press we've gotten. We don't expect to videotape the next Rodney King incident. We hope we never do! We consider it a success when a cop stands up straighter, acts polite for the camera, and doesn't abuse his authority. Success is the applause we get from people when we walk down the street. It is even a success when a cop makes a snide remark to us, because it makes us aware of the impact we have on them. When we are out on the streets, the police change their behavior, and people feel a lot safer. The threat of brutality goes down when the camera turns on.

Everyone can be Copwatch. The police are public servants whose salaries are paid for by tax dollars. That means that we should feel comfortable questioning their behavior and their performance because we are their employers. Everyone should be Copwatch. Everyone needs to be Copwatch.

All too often, the police try to scare ordinary people away with their intimidating use of authority. They lie to us and take advantage of our ignorance of our rights to gain even more power and authority over us. The police are not our friends and they do not consider anyone outside of law enforcement theirs-that is why they continue to hide behind their blue wall of silence. Sticking a camera over that wall and knowing our rights are two weapons that fight their power-and build ours.

For more information on Phoenix Copwatch, e-mail us, write us (PO Box 1543, Phoenix, AZ 85001), call us (602-241-6353), or go to our website.

new abolitionist society
copyright 1999