While marginalised groups have known about the issues with policing for generations, media attention on police misconduct has risen in recent years, leading to wider awareness of inherent injustices in these systems. One response, in particular, has been on the rise: copwatch.
Local police monitoring groups have sprung up across the country with increasing speed, read on to learn more and get involved.
What is copwatch?
Copwatch is an independent grassroots community project, aiming to end the abuse of power by the police. Copwatch groups are comprised of local community residents who are concerned about recurring police misconduct, harassment and brutality. In response, these residents come together to fight for their rights, monitor police conduct in targeted communities by directly observing police in the streets and advocating for victims of brutality witnessed. They also actively campaign to raise awareness and push for changes in discriminatory and racist policing practices.
Copwatches believe that, while it’s important to resist police brutality by taking police to court, filing complaints and having demonstrations, it’s also crucial to be in the streets letting police know that people will hold them accountable for their behaviour in a community. They advocate for citizens to build a movement capable of stopping police violence, and challenging the increasingly powerful role of police in society. Policing is often at its most coercive and aggressive on the streets within stigmatised communities, particularly those that are marginalised based on class, gender and race.
Black people are over eight times more likely nationally to be stopped and searched, which rises to seventeen times in certain areas. More black people are criminalised and jailed in England and Wales proportionally than in the USA.
Recently released ‘use of force’ figures suggest a disproportionate use of force, including Taser use, against men who are black or from an ethnic minority in certain London boroughs.
Issues with the police
One needs to simply skim the news to see recurring stories of police violence, but some of the key issues can be summarised as:
- Control of movement: police have too many powers to restrict and control freedom of movement, especially in the context of protests. Copwatches oppose the use of kettling, militarised equipment and force used against protesters.
- Excessive use of surveillance and data-gathering: police increasingly gather personal information of members of the public. Copwatches oppose the use of plain clothes police, undercover officers and Forward Intelligence Teams at protests, as protests shouldn’t be considered criminal. They also oppose the excessive gathering of data on racialised communities under the guise of counter-terrorism or counter-violence.
- Use of stop and search and other ‘deterrents’: stop and search is a blanket power, while the use of ‘schedule 7’ stops at borders allows the detention and questioning of individuals for up to 9 hours, without need for suspicion, and with no right to silence. Copwatches also oppose other deterrent and preventative strategies that restrict freedoms.
- The use of extra-judicial and excessive sentencing: police often impose punitive bail conditions and conditional cautions, allowing them to punish without recourse to the courts. Copwatches also oppose the use of ‘deterrent’ sentencing, which is disproportionately punitive and can have a devastating impact on individuals and their families.
A major barrier is also the ‘blue wall of silence’, where police remain silent on abuses within their departments in order to protect each other. Copwatchers try to overcome this wall through documentation of police activity. While nearly every other industry has an independent oversight group to monitor abuse, it’s clear that any forms of police oversight that currently exist do not work. The public has the right to monitor their behaviour.
It has been proven that police departments cannot be trusted to monitor their own behavior without bias, and if my use of a camera and knowledge of the law helps others, then I feel like my efforts in the fight against police brutality are well worth it.
How it works
Copwatching can be adapted to specific contexts and local areas, and all members have an equal voice in making major decisions. While it’s impossible to be at the scene of every incident, copwatchers intend to be on the streets at times when police misconduct is most probable; documenting as much police activity as possible, advocating for those who feel the police have mistreated them, and educating the community.
Documentation is made available to such people, and their lawyers on request, and everything is archived so that if a person chooses not to pursue a claim against the police but changes their mind later, the documentation will be available. It’s not their job to decide guilt or innocence, but to ensure police respect the democratic rights of all people. They discourage police brutality and harassment by making police aware that they are being watched, and that law enforcement officers will be held accountable for their actions.
Copwatchers usually attempt to de-escalate situations whenever possible, encouraging people to solve problems nonviolently within the community, without police involvement. When watching police behaviour they are careful not to escalate situations, from their body language to the way they interact with police stops, because if an arrest is made police can’t be monitored behind closed doors.
Copwatch is not a game. We are going against a well-trained, heavily-armed organization that is prone to violence and racism, and all we have to defend ourselves is a camera, a notepad, and the law. If you decide you want to take on the police by cussing them out, insulting them, or getting in their face, you put all other Copwatch members as well as the people being held by the police in danger, which means you put the entire Copwatch program in danger.
By direct observation, copwatchers aim to reduce police violence through accountability while asserting the rights of detained people through non-violent, de-escalatory tactics. As well as direct monitoring they educate the public on police conduct, follow up with public pressure in legal proceedings, support brutality victims in defence of false charges, encourage and assist people in filing complaints or even suing police, and lobby to stop discriminatory legislation and policies that increase police powers. Copwatches may also offer know your rights trainings, as well as workshops on community-based actions to organise against brutality and exploring alternatives to calling the police through community approaches to problem-solving.
They want to expand community support for victims of police brutality, educate community members about their rights, encourage others to exercise their right to observe the police, and mobilise communities to protest injustices.
On the streets we are serving the people. Our effectiveness will be greatly enhanced if the community trusts us. When the streets are quiet and there is no police activity, a Copwatch member can spend time distributing Know Your Rights cards, pamphlets or just getting to know people. Explain to the people that you are with Copwatch and tell them about the program. Get into conversations. If people know that you are trying to help and that you care, that in itself will be empowering.
Across the UK, copwatch groups can be found organising in many local areas; training people to intervene when they see the police in their neighbourhood. Some groups include:
- Hackney Copwatch
- Tottenham Copwatch
- Islington Copwatch
- Camden Copwatch
- Lambeth Copwatch
- Southwark Copwatch
- Newham Copwatch
- Tower Hamlets Copwatch
- Bristol CopWatch
- The Northern Police Monitoring Project (Greater Manchester)
- Manchester CopWatch
- Newcastle Copwatch (covering the Northumbria Police force area)
- BizzieWatch / Liverpool CopWatch
- Cambridge CopWatch
- Y Pantherod / Cardiff Copwatch
- The Scottish Community and Activist Legal Project
- Not One Rogue Cop (Glasgow)
As well as area-specific groups, there are national organisations including:
- Netpol: seeks to challenge and resist policing which is excessive, discriminatory or threatens civil rights, in partnership with community and activist-based groups that monitor policing and policing of protest.
- StopWatch UK: resources, information and support on police use of stop and search powers across England and Wales)
- The Y-Stop app: a secure phone app allowing people to access on-the-spot information on their rights and securely record police encounters.
- Green and Black Cross: provide independent legal observers for protests.
- Black Protest Legal Support: provide legal observers and support for Black-led protests across the UK.
- Netpol’s Know Your Rights page: contains links to legal information, and a solicitors’ list to help you find legal representation.
If a copwatch doesn’t exist in your local area and you want to start one, you can get in touch with Netpol for resources, and learn more about intervening in a police stop here.