Police misconduct and violence continues throughout the world, often without any oversight, accountability or justice for the victims. Recent deaths of civilians by police officers in New York, violent repression of “Occupy” protestors, and rampant police violence in response to the “Arab Spring” have brought renewed attention to the persistent issue of police violence. A critical tool for documenting misconduct, seeking redress, and advancing reform efforts is the street-level use of video monitoring by civil society. The innovation of social networks and information-sharing platforms, together with the accessibility of audio-video technology, has enhanced the ability of everyday civilians and NGOs to hold security providers accountable to the people they are sworn to serve.
The monitoring of street-level police practices is essential for strengthening the rule of law and democratic governance of police services, for encouraging appropriate reform, reducing violence and improving police-community relations. It is a critical tool for holding security institutions accountable to the people they serve and by consequence, enhancing the quality of life of civilians, as well as citizen and community security. Domestic and international initiatives for police reform should learn from these efforts, incorporate them into their toolkits and provide sustained and structural support to strengthen and replicate them.
On 26 January 2012, 19-year old Jateik Reed was violently beaten by four New York Police Department (NYPD) officers during a street encounter in the Bronx, NY. The officers claim that Reed forcefully resisted arrest on drug possession charges, punching and head-butting the officers. After the incident, however, cellphone video footage of the incident was released. Rather than resisting arrest, the footage shows the officers physically assaulting Reed, knocking him to the ground, striking him with batons and kicking him repeatedly for around 20 seconds. Since the release of the video, the officers have been placed on modified duty and stripped of their badges and guns.
On 2 February 2012, 18 year-old Ramarley Graham was shot and killed at close range in the bathroom of his Bronx home by a NYPD plainclothes narcotics officer. The officer, along with a group of fellow officers from the NYPD’s Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit, forcefully kicked their way into Graham’s home after claiming that Graham was suspected of drug possession, resisting arrest, and running away from the police. The officers claim that Graham was believed to be armed and dangerous. However, in the days following Graham’s death, surveillance footage outside his home revealed Graham calmly walking into his home, unlocking and opening his door, and closing it behind him. Officers swarmed afterwards, forcing their way into his home with guns drawn, and ultimately, taking his life. Richard Haste, the officer who fired the fatal shot, and his partner, Sgt. Scott Morris have both been placed on administrative duties.
On November 29, 2011, 68 year-old Kenneth Chamberlain was shot and killed by officers in White Plains, NY. The officers reported that they responded to a medical stress call, were shown a knife and threatened by Chamberlain. Subsequently, however, video and audio tape revealed that Chamberlain was not under medical duress, that officers used racial slurs and that Chamberlain was unarmed when he was shot.
During the wave of demonstrations and protests known as “Occupy”, video footage of police actions documented police spraying pepper spray and shooting teargas canisters and bean bags directly – and often at point blank range – into the faces of demonstrators. Images of police spraying non-violent student demonstrators at the University of California-Davis’ campus, and footage of NYPD Deputy Anthony Bologna’s repeated use of pepper spray on detained protestors became rallying cries for the protests and drew national attention to the issue of police use of force during demonstrations.
And who could forget Rodney King, the survivor of a graphic beating by members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)? The video of the incident, which was captured on a camcorder by a civilian observer, was shown on airwaves around the world and led to a massive outcry for reform. After the trial of the four LAPD officers involved in the beating failed to secure any convictions, a massive uprising occurred in L.A., commonly referred to as the “L.A. riots”. A later federal civil rights trial found two of the officers guilty and sentenced them to 30 months in prison. The incident spawned a number of police accountability initiatives, particularly in terms of intentional civilian video monitoring of police.
Instances of police violence have been captured in many other countries outside the USA. Most recently, videos of police violence in response to demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iran and Yemen have proved vitally important to help bring global attention to the violent repression and misconduct by police against pro-democracy and reform activists, and bolstered demands and action for reform of the police and other security institutions.
Those incidents which are captured represent only a small percentage of the number of incidents and interactions that occur between civilians and law enforcement on a daily basis throughout the United States. These encounters routinely occur without independent coverage and often rely on the officer’s account alone. Due to their position of authority, officers’ accounts frequently prevail over counter-narratives provided by their civilian counterparts. It is important to stress, however, that most daily interactions between police and civilians occur without incident or abuse and the majority of police officers conduct their duty with respect and dignity for themselves, the badge, the law – and most importantly – the people and communities they serve. Nonetheless, such unchecked authority and use of (lethal) force must be monitored and controlled. This is essential for maintaining the rule of law, establishing police services responsible to the communities they serve, and enhancing quality of life, citizen/community security and human development.
Street encounters initiated by police officers are the most common form of interaction between police officers and civilians. The NYPD, the largest police force in the United States (with approximately 36,000 uniformed officers) and a model for policing practices domestically and internationally has initiated a programme called “stop and frisk” (sometimes “stop, question and frisk” or SQF) in New York City. In 2011, the NYPD conducted over 684,000 stops of civilians. In theory, SQF was envisioned as a situation in which a police officer stops a person on the street for suspicion of engaging in or planning to engage in illegal activity and questions them. The officer can frisk the individual if the officer has reasonable suspicion that the individual holds a weapon or narcotics and poses a threat to the officer or to those around them.
Those who endorse SQF practice deem the activity necessary to get weapons off the street. Opponents, however, have cited SQF as unconstitutional, illegal and based in racial profiling. They rebut the weapons claim by pointing out the incredibly low “hit” rate – less than 0.1 percent of all stops yield weapons or narcotics. In addition, advocates and experts have alleged racial bias in the practice as Blacks and Latinos constitute over 80 percent of those stopped. Further, the constitutionality and legality of the practice is questioned as fewer than 12 percent of those stopped are arrested or receive a summons. The most frequent justifications for the stops that are provided by the officers (and pre-printed on the forms) – such as “furtive movements” – remain legally dubious, at best. Even when controlled for crime rates and resource allocations, advocates have contended the stops to be unjustified and racially motivated.
In addition to questions regarding the legality of the practice, there are also serious concerns regarding the use of force. Indeed, the use of force appears at an alarming rate in many police-civilian street encounters. In an analysis conducted for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which analyzed NYPD databases detailing recorded SQFs from 2005 through the first half of 2008, NYPD officers were reported as using force in 24 percent of all stops conducted. In fact, the use of physical force by NYPD officers occurred more frequently than either the number of summonses issued, or actual arrests combined. Furthermore, the research showed significant racial disparity in the use of force, as officers used force against 17 percent of Whites stopped, versus 24 percent of Blacks and Latinos. Subsequent data analyses have confirmed this troubling, continuing trend. While these figures alone do not demonstrate that such use of force was illegal, its frequency (which may be even higher as this figure relies on self-reporting by officers) demands oversight and control.
Despite these concerns and a number of legal challenges, public demonstrations and media condemnation, SQF has ballooned into a massive daily enterprise. As noted earlier, in 2011, 684,330 stops were made, up 14 percent from 2010 and 600 percent from 2002. Given the high frequency of encounters, the alleged unconstitutionality of the stops, their reliance on racial profiling and the frequency of the use of force, this should be of utmost concern for anyone concerned with police reform specifically or – more broadly – democratic governance, security and the rule of law.
As a means of providing oversight, control and accountability for practices such as this and other “everyday” police-civilian encounters, video monitoring by civilians has grown in popularity. To be sure, video monitoring has proven to be a key tactic for fostering non-violent policy-civilian interactions, as well as a useful component in broader strategies for reform.
As a means of observing and monitoring police activities and to hold officers accountable for misconduct, video monitoring by civilians has proved itself to be an extremely effective and popular tool, boosted by the heightened accessibility of video-recording devices, especially cellphones. As noted in The Economist (December 2011), over two-thirds of Americans, for instance, own digital cameras. The prevalence of recording devices combined with the availability of video-sharing sites on the internet, such as YouTube or Facebook, allows a video to go viral instantaneously. Further, as many news outlets rely increasingly upon “citizen journalists”, such outlets have gained increased legitimacy and effectiveness.
Such “uncontrolled” and decentralized information sharing can prove unwieldy if not counter-effective. As an alternative, a number of organized police accountability organizations have developed “CopWatch” programs. As the name implies, CopWatch programs are designed to monitor street-level police activities, particularly their interactions with civilians. Programs have been developed in Berkeley, California, Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, New York City and Paris, France, amongst other locations. Often partnered with street outreach and “know your rights” workshops, these initiatives strive to empower communities to hold police accountable to the communities they serve by discouraging the illegal (or questionable) use of force or illegal stops and frisks. The programs train volunteers to engage in CopWatch outings, provide video equipment, on-call attorney networks (in case their members get arrested) and a follow-up mechanism in order to seek redress for documented incidents of misconduct or abuse. In addition, the programs strive to provide a proactive deterrent to misconduct and abuse by having civilians – armed with video cameras and informed of their rights – observing and documenting police actions.
However, rather than embracing the activity or simply permitting it to happen, many police have lashed out by targeting videographers. In the past year, stories have appeared in news outlets such as The Washington Post, The Economist, The New York Times and Time, detailing incidents involving police arresting civilians because they were filming them. Such incidents have been recorded in states such as Florida, California, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio.
That is why a recent US Federal Appeals decision is of crucial importance. In the case, Glik v. Cunniffe, et al., the court ruled that it is a constitutionally protected First Amendment activity to videotape police activities in public and that this right is well enough established that an arrest for such activity amounts to a violation of one’s Fourth Amendment rights. As the court ruled: “Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting “the free discussion of governmental affairs.”
The court continued to note that “Ensuring the public’s right to gather information about their officials not only aids in the uncovering of abuses…but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally.”
Such activity should not be resisted or feared by police departments; an engaged community and citizenry can be the most effective partner for police in preventing and combating crime. In addition, this can help return police activities to their ideal place: serving and protecting the communities in which they work. Lastly, an increase of video monitoring can also serve to help de-escalate incidents and also document the cases in which police officers do their job appropriately and correctly.
On-the-ground street-level civilian monitoring of police forces is a critical way of maintaining civilian oversight, transparency and accountability of police actions and to reduce violence on the street. Indeed, this is not just an initiative that should be encouraged and supported domestically, but internationally as well. Such documentation has proved critical in the democracy and reform demonstrations around the world, most clearly evidenced during the Arab Spring. Within international development practice, particularly related to security sector reform (SSR), this is one of the most direct ways to encourage civil society participation and empowerment: the provision of street monitoring training and necessary video equipment to local civil society organizations, including the media, as well as encouraging the establishment of legal protection for such activities. Such a coordinated effort can help improve the SSR and international development community’s efforts to engage in meaningful and genuine community-based and bottom-approaches to reform and oversight. This can prove especially valuable as SSR and other related reform programs continue to struggle to engage in effective community-based efforts to reform police, strengthen civil society and enhance citizen and community security. Many of the SSR toolkits and activities on “police integrity”, for instance, tend to focus on internal capacity-building as the means for reform and negate the powerful role to be played by civil society. This in part not only reflects a frequent state-centric vantage point, but also an incomplete and narrow view of reform, which prioritizes issues of corruption more than issues of street-level policing.
As the above examples indicate, police oversight and reform measures are not only needed in transition states, but in Western donor states as well. Such efforts are not sufficient on their own to ensure sustained and structural oversight and accountability. Rather, these should be part of and integrated with a broader package of reform that includes the establishment of Ombudsman institutions, Special Auditors, and in many cases, independent special prosecutors to investigate cases of alleged misconduct and abuse.
The right to use force is an incredibly precious right entrusted to the state by its people. It should be monitored regularly and carefully with appropriate and effective oversight and control mechanisms established. While internal oversight mechanisms exist in many police forces, unfortunately, many police forces have shown that they cannot police themselves.
 For online examples of CopWatch programs, see: http://www.berkeleycopwatch.org/; http://www.portlandcopwatch.org/; http://www.copwatchla.org/; http://www.peoplesjustice.org/site/index.php/Cop-Watch-Network/; https://copwatchnord-idf.org/.
*Originally published on Global Minds on March 7, 2012