Among the chants and Twitter hashtags radiating from Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York—“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “I Can’t Breathe”—an improvisation on N.W.A.’s anti-cop rap lyric has been one of the most contemporary.
“Film the police,” protesters declared after a smartphone caught police locking Eric Garner, a Staten Island man, in a lethal chokehold. In Ferguson, there is no question that a police officer’s bullets ended Michael Brown’s life, but the lack of video documentation of the shooting has left the details in dispute. And so, as protests raged, a group of New Yorkers met at a library in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to learn the best practices for capturing police encounters on camera.
The workshop was being held by Peoples’ Justice, a police-accountability group that hopes to “spread the culture of cop-watching,” a tactic they trace to the Black Panthers. “Huey Newton would hit the streets with a law book and a shotgun,” Aidge Patterson, a Peoples’ Justice coördinator who was leading the seminar, said. “We’re shooting with a camera.”
Patterson wore a turquoise cap flipped backward and a T-shirt adorned with an assault rifle discharging a rose. A poster behind him showed an officer beating a man with a nightstick while a well-equipped camera crew documented the incident. The aspiring filmmakers in attendance included two fourteen-year-old boys, who’d been dragged to the meeting by a mentor from a program for at-risk youths; Keeshan Harley, a nineteen-year-old in a Shepard Fairey “OBEY” T-shirt, who wants to start a cop watch in Crown Heights; and an older man in Capri pants. “I’m here because I’ve realized electronics cannot be invalidated,” Kendra Brewster, a social psychologist, said. It had become clear, she added, that human beings could be.
Patterson began the workshop with a civics quiz. “True or false,” he said. “If you are stopped or arrested, it’s best to answer all the cop’s questions.”
“When I watch ‘Law & Order,’ they say don’t talk to the cops unless you got a lawyer,” Derek, one of the teens, said.
“Right!” Patterson said. “I’m glad they’re dropping some actual knowledge there.” Derek recalled a recent encounter with the police. “I came from a party with my friends, and some cops—they was D.’s, detectives—hopped out on us and were, like, ‘Get on the wall,’ ” he said. He wondered if the police could legally look through his pockets.
“That’s a search,” Patterson said, drawing a distinction between the city’s stop-and-frisk practice and a search, which requires probable cause.
“But what if they keep going?” Derek said. “Because some cops just don’t care.”
That, Patterson said, was where the cameras came in. Filming the police in public is a federal right, and the N.Y.P.D. recently sent out a memo reminding officers of that fact. (The department has also considered outfitting officers with their own lapel cameras.) In addition to promoting spontaneous cop-watching, Peoples’ Justice patrols neighborhoods with a police scanner and two film crews—one to capture incidents up close, the other to get wide-angle shots.
Patterson pulled out a small camcorder and a diagram with Lego characters showing proper cop-watching formation. The Grim Reaper held one camera; Wonder Woman had a walkie-talkie; Wolverine was in charge of talking to the police. The cameraman should stand a few feet away from the cops, Patterson said, both to frame the shot—“If you focus on the face, the police might kick them in the leg”—and because “we are not in the business of getting our asses kicked.” He discouraged narration, to avoid talking over incriminating dialogue, and recommended a smartphone app, developed by a lawyer in Chicago, that automatically uploads footage to the Web before an officer has a chance to delete it. If the cops get upset about the raised camera, Patterson suggested lowering it to your hip. “But try to keep filming,” he said.
Patterson asked for volunteers to conduct a role-playing exercise. He and another experienced cop-watcher played the authorities, while Derek played the victim and his mentor, Dashamelle Robinson, took the camera. “Action!” Patterson shouted, as he pushed Derek against a wall. Robinson kept her eyes trained on the viewfinder, while Harley, charged with keeping peace with the police, called out, “I’m exercising my right to observe!” Afterward, worried about how he would react on the street, he said, “I got emotional. This is like a test.”
As the group debriefed, Robinson asked Patterson if it might be better, in certain situations, to put the camera down and intervene. “I’ve heard many folks say, ‘If somebody had just jumped in there to push those cops off, maybe Eric Garner would be alive today,’ ” Patterson said. “But we don’t know what would have happened. Maybe they would have backed off. Maybe there would be two dead people.” He paused. “Cop-watching is about letting each other know: ‘I care about you. I got your back.’ Just so long as we’re there.”