CopWatch Explosion in the U.S.A.
It is now a phenomenon. CopWatch organizations are being set up all over America, by ordinary citizens, driven to police the police, in grassroots community efforts. I review CopWatch sites, and interview the creators of Portland's Worst Cop Card Deck in this article.
CopWatch Explosion in the U.S.
By Kirsten Anderberg
It is now a phenomenon. CopWatch organizations are being set up all over America, by ordinary citizens, driven to police the police, in grassroots community efforts. Portland (portlandcopwatch.org, rosecitycopwatch.org), Austin (geocities.com/austincopwatch), NYC ( link to mediafilter.org), Tucson (tucsoncopwatch.com), Denver (denvercopwatch.org), and more, have CopWatch organizations in their cities. And CopWatch groups are networking and training each other. Berkeley CopWatch came down to Santa Cruz to help their community start a CopWatch. Texas Copwatch (www.aclutx.org/projects/police/copwatchblotter) describes Copwatch as "a group of ordinary people who observe and record police activity on the streets. We do this because we believe that police brutality is widespread in our communities and that the only way to stop it is to challenge it directly." Berkeley's CopWatch describes itself as a community based volunteer organization that "monitors police activity in the Southside neighborhood, and elsewhere, in an effort to defend the rights of all citizens, especially those who live on the street, who are people of color, or are otherwise disenfranchised. Everyone has a right to fair treatment under the law. Copwatch also carries out campaigns and distributes educational material geared at ending institutionalized injustice and police misconduct in our communities."
Some of the CopWatch organizers are mothers whose sons were brutally murdered by police, and have been given no justifiable reason for their son's death. Their sons' deaths haunt them daily, hourly. There sons' shadows follow their every step. And I have to admit, when I heard their cumulative stories at the October 22 Coalition National Convention (www.october22.org) in 2003, I cried hard, as mother after mother told the same story, with the same ending, "Where is my son?" There but by the grace of God go I. These brave mothers and fathers told their personal stories of loss and frustration with police departments all over America (www.stolenlives.org). Other communities have created CopWatch activities due to police harassment of protest movements. And some, such as myself, have come to feel a need to protect myself and family from a rogue, vigilante, state police force that hides its name tags and badges while on duty. The very fact that the police on public streets ABHOR being identified is enough for me to have serious concerns about my safety near them. I think all police should have to wear florescent names on their backs like football players' jerseys. And I can give you example after example of the Seattle Police literally making fools of themselves, trying to not be identified, as required by law (Seattle Muni Code 3.28 to be exact), which really breaks down to me giving you example after example of Seattle Police breaking the law.
"... I will wander around barefoot
I will have a psychedelic gleam in my eye at all times
I will love everyone
I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the Street... " - Frank Zappa
Recently Portland caused a big stir by producing Portland's Worst Cop Card Deck. In an interview with the group that created the card deck, the group uses the collective moniker "GPFX," I asked what inspired the deck. They said there were many complaints of police "incidents," mostly at anti-war protests, that "never seemed to go anyplace. People would talk about lawsuits and investigations, then a few weeks later everyone would get distracted by a shiny pebble or something, and nothing would happen. Add that to the fact that after every protest, there would be swarms of pleas to "Identify the officer doing XXX atrocities in this photo" posted all over Indymedia... " They also said "Visual ID is the primary reason, a kind of permanence also will come of this. Too many of our cops are fired for things like stealing from the city, then are quietly rehired three months later. This deck will give people the chance to carry around 52 rotten cops at all times, and keep their crimes from fading into memory. Great tool to have on hand when the city council says the latest atrocity was an "isolated incident."" After several turnovers of different groups of people using the same identifier, "GPFX," the project was steered towards this card deck theme. "The difference between talking about it and actually doing it was 36 hours," said GPFX. The rough draft of 52 cards was done in about 36 hours, about three weeks after conceiving the idea, and the deck is still not finished, from what I can tell. At the time of this interview, GPFX was still looking for 15 cops to photograph to complete the deck. Once that is done, they will disband and reform when there is a public outcry for a revision, the same way they came together, via Indymedia.
Portland's Worst Cop Card Deck started with a "most rotten cop" contest, and an Indymedia thread requesting nominations. In no time, they had 100 worst cop nominees. GPFX said, "Narrowing it down was hard, many names were thrown out with no accusations, many were of former officers now retired, many names were thrown out because (the only complaint was) "this cop is a real asshole, he gave me a ticket."" GPFX took the 100 names, threw out the categories above, then ran the names through local newspaper websites, Indymedia search pages, and finally, google.com. "Valid complaints came up for a large number of them, and we just drank a lot of coffee and typed the list into a rough draft listing all the names we had and what we were able to find. We then threw this list up on Indymedia and in about five hours, most of the blanks were filled in. We then had a list of about 70 bad cops, and what they had done. Then we assigned reasoning behind the cards' suits (aces were behind the scenes manipulators, kings were ultraviolent, queens were almost as violent, jacks were wanna-be aces, and the 2-10 cards in spades were ones that targeted protesters, hearts mess with people (like taking homeless sleeping bags or screwing with people in parks), diamonds were on the take or otherwise corrupt, and clubs were the most violent). Originally we were going to divide the suits up into north, east, west and south sections, but our city's geography does not make that easy or effective, and northeast Portland (the predominately black area) has such a greater amount of police misconduct that it would outweigh the rest of the deck," said GPFX.
For $10, a roster of all employees of the Portland Police Department can be had, including administrative and undercover cops, if requested by a citizen. Most cities have some provision where you can request the roster of names of those on your police force. That is a good place to start a checklist of reoccurring offending names if you are starting a CopWatch in your city. In Seattle, a group called PIG (Police Investigation Group), showed up at the LEIU protests with white notebooks full of the Seattle Police Roster. They would walk up to a Seattle cop, and see his name tag (those that did not hide them), with an initial and a last name, such as J. Smith. The PIG member would quickly look the officer's first name up, and say something like, "John, good to see you wearing your identifiers. Thank you." The police seemed unnerved that citizens would know their full names. PIG used the roster to mark which police officers carried machine guns, and tactical weaponry vests, tracked their movements throughout the protests with the rosters, etc... For instance, the violent cop in front of the Red Lion, later resurfaced as one of the front line cops spraying chemical weapons down the street later. Anyway, the above methods give you an idea of how to COLLECT BAD COP NAMES in your area. Portland's Indymedia requests for abusive cop names, combined with googling and police records, gave GPFX the correct spellings, badge numbers, etc. pretty easily, but then they needed the photos.
Oregon passed a new law last year prohibiting state agencies from giving out officer's photos without their written permission. Originally, the group thought of filing an open records request for copies of the police ID cards, academy graduation pictures, and official department photos after they checked to see if the department or police academy keeps yearbooks on hand. This tactic apparently works in most states, but not in Oregon. So, GPFX appealed to the Indymedia for pictures. And pictures came flooding in, from old yearbooks, protest footage, old newspaper articles... one even came in from the TV show Cops. GPFX commented, "You would be surprised how many indymedia readers have cop photos sitting at home." They then made a list of officers they still needed pics of, took cameras, and went to protests in Portland to find and photograph them! Berkeley's CopWatch has some good videotaping advice for those videotaping police during a CopWatch: Remember the footage could be used in court, so keep only the cop and the incident in focus, be aware you could be recording your own voice over the footage and it can influence how the footage is received so be quiet as you record, make sure to date and time stamp the videotape while filming, try to get identifiers in the picture, such as street signs or landmarks, and finally, label the tape with the location, preferably the intersection, the date, and time.
I asked the GPFX group how they dealt with security and if they had been threatened in any way for producing this deck. They said they never email one another, they do not know who each other are, and most everything is done through threads on the Indymedia. A thread such as "Ace of Hearts identified" will be posted and someone with that card will download it, another will edit it, another will post it to the website... they said this card deck is their only project. When I asked how many of them there were, they answered, "none of us has any idea." Regarding threats, they have gotten the usual internet rants about being sued and going to jail, etc... but as GPFX says, "all we have really done is reprint news stories, court cases and police press releases." Even though GPFX does not know of any laws that would have been broken by producing this deck, they still suggest staying anonymous for others doing such a project. They recommend anyone that makes contact with authorities in your group, such as in requesting and picking up a police name roster, have that be the first and last and only thing that person does with your group.
I asked if anyone in particular was complaining about this deck. GPFX responded, "Only trends we see seem to have something to do with Texans hating the deck. I have no idea why so many Texans read Portland's Indymedia (unless they got confused with the tiny ass town of Portland, TX). Everyone else seems to love the idea, we overhear murmerings about it all over town and have to work to keep a straight face." I asked if police have responded yet. GPFX responded, "... two ex-cops... say they love it. Many of these rogue cops on the deck are cops that even the POLICE hate, cops that other
cops have arrested, investigate, fired, etc. One cop on this deck has sued the police department several times, whenever he runs short of cash. The good cops HATE this guy. Lots of these cops are so crooked that even the PPB calls them criminals in their press releases (they hate the fact that they are not allowed to hide the old ones)."
As is the case with too many fabulous radical projects, there are some problems with keeping these cards available online. Since GPFX is an illusive group, a paid website is highly unlikely. They posted the cards that were done on Geocities ( link to www.geocities.com, but you may have to google or look on Portland IMC to see where the whole deck lands permanently. The site holds all 52 cards, 2 jokers (the PIO and the police chief), an "about the deck" card, and a card for a citizen witness to use to write badge numbers, locations, etc. when necessary. The card deck can be printed out for free on your home computer, it comes in 7 sheets, (color, 300 DPI). After printing, just cut apart the individual cards and let the fun begin! Play the game "memory" that we played as kids with the cards. Hell, play memory with them WITH your kids, save them some hassle on the streets!
Infoshop has posted a 7 page downloadable zine called "CopWatch 101" ( http://www.infoshop.org/inews/stories.php?story=04/04/06/6676838), which includes detailed instructions on how to form your own CopWatch. They suggest that every "neighborhood watch" should include a "copwatch" element, which is good advice. But more importantly, CopWatch 101 delves into the police problem itself, suggesting viable and reasonable solutions that could be implemented right now to improve public safety on America's streets. CopWatch 101 advocates open accessibility of all police personnel records, the removal of all profit motives (such as money generated from traffic tickets for the force, and mandates as to ticket minimums for those profits), strict drug and alcohol testing for all officers, the prohibition of puffed up charges as leverage for plea bargained confessions, the repayment of all costs to victims who are criminally charged and later found innocent, public acknowledgement that police are public employees on the public dime, consistent and equal law enforcement, the coming down of the police code of silence regarding police abuse, the requirement of an objective reasonable standard for the use of force, the banning of all "less-lethal" weaponry on the streets, and improved and expanded police training. CopWatch 101 also has an extensive list of CopWatch organizations and resources.
And can you get school credit for participating in CopWatch? Apparently in Berkeley you can! The Berkeley CopWatch website says, "UC Berkeley Copwatch Class for credit, every Monday night from 6 to 7:30pm (open to public)." And people think school cannot be fun! Berkeley's CopWatch is also facilitating a free hands on workshop called "Know Your Rights Training," on May 29, 2004, from 11am - 2 pm, at 2022 Blake Street in Berkeley. The ad for this workshop says it will cover your rights when stopped by cops, what to look for when others are stopped, staying safe while CopWatching, what to do if police violate your rights, training in video taping and using a police scanner and more! Berkeley also hosts online incident reporting regarding Berkeley Police abuse. All of these organizations and activities above can only increase the safety of American streets... Do you have a CopWatch in your town? Who will start one? If not you, who? If not now, when?
"Mama, mama, someone said they made some noise,
The cops have shot some girls and boys.
You'll sit home and drink all night
They looked too weird, it served them right...
Mama, mama, your child was killed in the park today
Shot by the cops as she quietly lay
By the side of the creeps she knew...
They killed her too." - Frank Zappa
address: seattle, Wa US
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