know your rights

Copwatch is a network of activist organizations that observe and document police activity. They believe that monitoring police activity on the streets is a way to prevent police brutality. 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.

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. Copwatch was first started in Berkeley, California in 1990.

‘Copwatchers’ go out on foot or drive patrols in their communities and record interactions between the police and civilians. 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. In Phoenix, Arizona, copwatchers have increased efforts of ‘reverse surveillance’ on the police in an effort to document racial profiling. 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.

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 author of an editorial article in ‘Willamette Week’ said that their personal opinion was that the poster was ‘inflamed rhetoric’ and said that they thought it would harm ‘the relationship between the Portland police and the community it serves,’ as well as claiming 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.’

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

In 2006, CopWatch LA posted a video showing the arrest of William Cardenas, whom police described as a ‘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. 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. A Superior Court commissioner had previously concluded that the use of force was reasonable because Cardenas was resisting arrest.

Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio (noted for his harsh tactics) expressed concern that copwatchers videotaping police encounters create potential problems for officers’ safety, and some law enforcement agencies have responded to the surge in amateur videos by installing cameras in squad cars to protect officers against false allegations. Tim Dees, editor-in-chief of, alleges that Copwatch selectively distributes video and photographic media to ‘spin’ incidents against law enforcement.

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