[Fighting] Against Racism with Smartphones

Through CopWatch, civilians film police in order to document discrimination. But does that really create more trust?

Eric Garner lies on the ground and gasps desperately, “I can’t breathe.” The 43-year-old’s head is pressed onto the tarmac as a policeman takes him in a stranglehold. The asthmatic father of six children dies the same day.

The video of Garner’s arrest and his last breaths on July 17, 2014 in the New York City borough of Staten Island spread rapidly around the world. The jury’s decision that Daniel Pantaleo, the white police officer who fatally choked the African-American Garner, did not have to stand trial triggered nationwide protests against police brutality in the United States.

For Andrea Pritchett, Garner’s case is a turning point in the U.S. “In the years since Eric Garner’s and [Michael] Brown’s death in Ferguson, the climate in America has changed a lot. And now we have such videos as evidence of unlawful violence by the police,”* Pritchett said. As early as the 1990s, Pritchett had already founded the group CopWatch. What started as a citizens’ initiative to document unjust police behavior toward homeless people in California has grown into a national movement that takes action against police violence and racial discrimination.

Filming Police Is Allowed

In CopWatch, citizens patrol big cities like New York, Atlanta and Baltimore with their smartphones in order to capture the dealings – and possible abuse – of community police on video. Although police often try to stop civilians from filming, it is legal to film officers in public places, as long as it doesn’t hinder their work. “When we started CopWatch, the American people were very pro-police,”* said Prichett. Today, however, that confidence in the police has virtually disappeared, and the population has begun to distrust their behavior, especially against blacks and other minorities such as Latinos.

“Although Brown, Garner, Sandra Bland, and all the other victims of police violence see no justice, help CopWatch videos to uncover the abuses and wrongdoing,”* said Prichett. According to Guardian statistics, police in the U.S. have killed 960 people so far this year. According to the Wall Street Journal, 12 policemen have been accused of civilian casualties this year – more than any in the past decades, even though these were only a fraction of the homicides [committed] by police. There has been a decline in people’s confidence: According to a Gallup poll, only 52 percent have “much“ or “quite a lot“ of confidence [in the police] – the lowest level since 1993.

Can Observers Really Assess the Situation?

Are the country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies vulnerable to racism? Since cases like [Eric] Garner’s, Freddie Gray’s, and [Michael] Brown’s, around 900,000 police officers are under particularly close observation. The chairman of the police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, warns against stigmatization and generalization: “If you have never struggled with someone who is resisting arrest or who pulled a gun or knife on you … then you are not qualified to judge the actions of police officers putting themselves in harm’s way for the public good.”

Lynch views the critical media reports of racial discrimination and police violence as unfair and biased. He feared that it would worsen the relations between the people and the police. “It is mystifying to all police officers to see pundits and editorial writers whose only expertise is writing fast-breaking, personal opinion, and who have never faced the dangers that police officers routinely do, come to instant conclusions that an officer’s actions were wrong based upon nothing but a silent video.”

‘We Are Not Inciting Suspicion’

There are now apps for cop-watching, such as [the one created by] Darren Baptiste. With it, citizens can film encounters with the police and then upload the video directly to the Internet. To date, more than 16,000 people have downloaded the app.

“More and more people are realizing that it’s time to do something to change the status quo,”* said Baptiste. The more Copwatch videos there are, the more it attracts attention in America and worldwide. “Only through this can long-term changes be achieved.” Now an increasing number of police are wearing body cameras, so-called “bodycams,” in order to assert their side against the allegations of racial discrimination and violence.

The question is whether cop-watching only fosters distrust on both sides. The civil rights activist Prichett disagrees: “We are not inciting suspicion, but giving oppressed communities control and self-protection. If it really comes down to it that there is a case like Garner or Brown again, then we have evidence that a police officer has behaved unjustly. Otherwise it would be just the word of a black man against a white one. Because [even] until today the balance of power in the USA is still not equal.”*

*Editor’s note: The original quotations, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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