Copwatching 101: Keep Your Eyes Open, Keep Your Neighbors Safe

George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, and we stand in unequivocal support of the protests and uprisings that have swept the US since that day, and against the unconscionable violence of the police and US state. We can’t continue with business as usual, which includes celebrating Pride. This week, Autostraddle is suspending our regular schedule to focus on content related to this struggle, the fight against white supremacy and the fight for Black lives and Black futures. Instead, we’re publishing and re-highlighting work by and for Black queer and trans folks speaking to their experiences living under white supremacy and the carceral state, and work calling white people to material action.
no justice. no pride.


In times of extreme mobilization, like this past week, it’s natural and reasonable for people who haven’t been materially involved before to want to get out in the streets and make a difference — but it can be overwhelming to go from sharing Facebook statuses directly to joining protests that are being suppressed by militarized police, and it isn’t necessarily the most helpful move, either. Well-meaning but inexperienced people new to street organizing can accidentally become a liability or a risk to organized protests if things escalate. Copwatching is a great next step; it’s in your own neighborhood, it’s free and requires no special equipment or experience, is a good way to open up conversations about police with people in your life, and you can and should do it all the time, not just in times of crisis. It’s very low-risk while making a real difference in keeping people safer. Although no one can, of course, guarantee anything, as far as interaction with the police goes, copwatching is very safe; it’s generally done in daylight, in public areas, and is meant to be de-escalating by design, especially if practiced by white people. The state and police as agents of it often surveil communities of color and immigrant communities as a tactic of control, reminding people they’re being watched so they stay in line; white people have the power to surveil police to the same effect.

What is copwatching?

Copwatching is the practice of monitoring and documenting police interactions with the community, and can be practiced as an unofficial form of community control. It’s not the same thing as filming police brutality or misconduct, although it can be related. Copwatching doesn’t mean showing up to protests, marches or 911 calls to monitor or film the police (although those are important and helpful actions as well!) it means visibly and actively monitoring the everyday actions of police in your area, from traffic stops to harassing unhoused people to stop-and-frisks, in order to make cops aware that they’re under scrutiny and to make it less likely that they’ll escalate an interaction to violence. Copwatching can also provide witnessing, connection and support to people being harassed or arrested by the police.

As with so many things we now recognize as vital to healthy communities, like their free breakfast program, we can largely look to the Black Panther Party for the blueprint on US copwatching. As Stanley Nelson, creator of documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, tells it:

So because there was a quirk in the law in California that said you could carry a loaded weapon as long as you carried it out in the open, what the Black Panthers did – again, there’s about six of them at this point – was they would ride around and kind of follow the police around. And when the police jumped out to make a stop, the Panthers would jump out behind the police. And they would maintain a respectful distance away from the police – you know, 10, 20 feet – but they would have their guns drawn. And as they put it, they would observe the police and make sure that no brutality occurred on the part of the police. So what they were really doing was policing the police… …as one of the police that we interviewed from back in the day, you know, he says, it was pretty intimidating. And (laughter) people always laugh at that in the film because it’s such an understatement, you know, to see, you know, these black men with guns who were standing by, observing, as they put it, the police. One of the most fascinating things about that action was that no violence actually occurred as a result of this, again, policing the police.

The Panthers used open-carry weapons (as well as law texts, recorders, and cameras) to underscore the gravity of their presence and the importance of not escalating to violence for police; that’s certainly still an option, at least in some states, but many of us may find that being visibly white, especially in groups, can have the same effect.

Who can copwatch?

Really, anyone; as a tactic it’s more likely to be effective when practiced by people with more visible social currency, like white people (and especially visibly middle- or upper-class white people). Obviously other visible (and invisible) marginalizations need to be taken into account as well – if you’re gender nonconforming, have drugs on your person, a previous arrest record, are not a citizen, etc, then definitely this is a less safe activity for you and that should be taken into account!

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Copwatching is also safer in groups – if you’re planning ahead of time to copwatch intentionally, definitely plan to bring a group if possible. Police are more intimidated by a crowd of white people watching them than a singular white person; it’s also a much more intimidating project to try to arrest or threaten a large group of people while also trying to arrest the person they were originally targeting than it is just one other citizen. Of course, sometimes copwatching happens to us without our planning to, and we need to assess the situation and our risk/safety alone in the moment.

I would also say you can have some can-do attitude about turning any group you’re with into a copwatching group if a police interaction begins in front of you. It makes everyone safer, and it’s also a great opportunity to open up dialogue – if you’re walking with friends to get ice cream and see police pull someone over in front of you, it’s easy to say “hey hold on and wait up with me here for a minute, I want to make sure this person is okay.” After you hopefully can proceed on with your day afterward, you can answer any questions about why you just stopped and why it matters to you.

How do you copwatch?

On a day to day basis, if you see police interacting with others in your neighborhood when you’re out and about — walking your dog, or headed to your car, or sitting on your porch — take the step of approaching the interaction and making it visible that you’re observing it. This could look like:

+ Police have pulled over a car on your street and are talking to its driver
+ Police have stopped some youth on the corner and are talking to them, searching them, or cuffing them
+ Someone has called the police on someone in your neighborhood who’s drunk or high and police are interacting with them
+ Police are trying to get an unhoused person on your street to leave

The next step is to stop what you’re doing, get close enough that it’s clear you’re watching but far enough away that you aren’t interfering (or exposing yourself to a virus), and wait. It’s key that the officer(s) know you’re watching; you aren’t trying to spy on them to catch them in the act of violence; you aren’t Harriet the Spy. The idea is to make it clear to them they have an audience, so the act of violence doesn’t occur in the first place.

You don’t need to interfere; you don’t need to try to stop them; you don’t (necessarily) need to film; you need to make it clear that someone is paying attention. Hopefully, the police let that person go without incident or harm; if the individual seem rattled or if they’re alone, you can check to see if they’re ok and if there’s anything they need, but if they’re safe then the interaction is over. Congratulations! You copwatched successfully.

What if the officer objects to me watching?

It’s possible! Most of the time nothing will happen, and police will ignore you completely. If they do ask what you’re doing or tell you you need to leave, you can remain calm, use a cool, professional voice, and let them know that you know your rights. You aren’t trying to provoke them or get into a debate; you aren’t trying to demand what they’re doing or make a statement about the role of police. Your job is to de-escalate, not bring anything new into the interaction or make it about yourself. (Remember also that interactions with police in public can feel stigmatizing, humiliating and vulnerable to the people they’re harassing; observe respectfully, but don’t force anyone to be at the center of a spectacle when they’re already terrified.) Here are some things you can try saying (it can be helpful to practice them in relaxed times when you aren’t copwatching so they come to you easily, or even write them on index cards and carry them in your bag).

“I am just making sure no one’s rights are being violated.”
“I’m not interfering and am staying a reasonable distance away.”
“Am I breaking the law?”

What if the person the police are talking to does get arrested?

Again, it isn’t your job to interfere, as painful and scary as it can be to watch someone get arrested; doing so can escalate and make them less safe. If there are aspects of the arrest that qualify as misconduct or physically violent, filming is an option – more on filming in a minute! You can also directly support the person being arrested in some ways; for instance, you can find out from them if there’s someone they’d like you to call to let them know that they’re being arrested; if they’re close enough to hear you, you can call out and ask for a name or a number. Even this can be a safety measure; when police know that someone in their custody has community members actively checking for them and people on the outside who know that they’re in police custody, the stakes are higher for them to keep that person physically safe.

Special occasion copwatching

Although cops can and should be watched at any time and in everyday interactions, organized copwatching also has an important role at big events or public gatherings, like protests or even holidays or celebrations like block parties, parades, or the 4th of July. If any of these are coming up in your community, look into whether any groups are organizing copwatching for that event — it will likely involve walking through and around the crowd in groups and wearing something that IDs you as copwatchers following police forces around the event, letting them know that the community is watching how they behave.

Should I film the police?

Filming can in some cases prevent police from escalating because they know they’re being recorded; if they do enact violence, it can serve as a record of what happened. It isn’t always necessary — your physical presence is often enough. It may make sense to film if an arrest occurs that you think may become violent, or if cops begin to assault or violate the person they’re interacting with, or if they threaten you or others. If you do want to film the police, there isn’t much I can say that isn’t better covered by Teen Vogue’s guide to filming the police safely. A few things I would especially point up from it and copwatch training:

+ Film the police, not the person they’re targeting, as much as possible! Police contact can be stigmatizing and if the video is released, someone being visible on it could be dangerous for them.
+ Keep a passcode lock on your phone, not a fingerprint or face ID, so police are less likely to open your phone up and delete the footage you just took.
+ If possible in the moment, try your best to make it clear what’s happening in the scene so it can be clear later to viewers: “Two officers are arresting this person, who was just driving down Main St; he’s unarmed.”
+ Have a plan in general for where you’ll send any video to so that you don’t need to make a snap decision in a moment of crisis – do you have friends who are lawyers or journalists, a local organizing group, or a cloud you can upload it to? The faster you can get the video off your phone and stored somewhere else, the safer it will be. On the other hand, think twice before immediately posting the video to social media; it might be a better idea to wait to a) get the consent of the person targeted by the police or their family and b) work with the community and the person targeted to create an intentional strategy around releasing the video and what outcomes you want from it.

What if officers object to me filming?

Again, a very real possibility. You can and should state what you’re doing and that it’s legal as part of your recording: “I am exercising my right to record and document police activity.” You should also be prepared for the possibility that your phone could be taken from you, impounded as evidence, or destroyed in front of you by the police at the scene; those are possible risks, but also ones that underscore how vital that recording is if it’s that threatening to police. Again, best to stay at least 6-10 feet away from police, and best to do this in groups if at all possible!

Want more info?

Great idea! The best introduction is to get involved in an IRL copwatch training (many are now being conducted virtually in the time of COVID); google your city + copwatch training to find out more. Much of the information here is drawn from the People’s Response Team Chicago, “a Black-led, multi-racial, intergenerational coalition that seeks to build a replicable and sustainable model to eradicate police terror in communities of color.” (They also link to a guide with much of this info about cop-watching in Spanish.) They and related organizations, like the Anti-Police Terror Project in Oakland, are great ways to learn more and get further involved.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1120 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you Rachel! This is very helpful. I live in a ‘very liberal’ city where the police are ‘marching for black lives.’ It is a lie of the utmost impunity. Here they continue to stop & harrass black people and people living on the street, threaten black teenagers with guns, and they promoted the officer who murdered Aura Rosser in 2014, so keep up the cop watching no matter what you think your police dept is like, and let’s defund and abolish police forces (they are made up of humans who can stop policing and do something helpful instead of harmful). More info here https://www.instagram.com/p/CA81xY4jrZb/?igshid=1sczpfu084vj3

  2. Looking forward to sharing this with my community and challenging us to make a commitment to copwatching at all times, but also be ready to do it in a more organized way at larger events, as you say. it is a small step that people who aren’t subject to violence from police can and should do.

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