Policing the State: An Interview with Berkeley CopWatch

Date:

CopWatch was formed to combat police brutality against oppressed groups. By documenting and exposing incidences of police misconduct and brutality they hope to foster a culture of resistance to state justice among working class people. This interview with a member of Berkeley CopWatch looks at some of their current activities as well as the broader political context for their work.
 

Background:

Who set Cop Watch up and what were their reasons for doing so?

Andrea Prichett, Danielle Storer, Suzanne Pegas worked with homeless people, community activists and students to establish Berkeley Copwatch in March of 1990. Copwatch was established to document abuse of the rights of homeless people in the Telegraph Avenue area and expanded into other areas of the city in later years. The main goals were to document abuses and to foster a community of resistance to abuse.

Current Activities:

What kind of activities are various Copwatches doing?

Copwatches are involved in a variety of approaches to police accountability. Some are working for a civilian review board, some are trying to change policies related to less lethal weapons. Others are focused on providing support for victims of abuse and still others strive to provide lots of copwatch shifts and trainings in their communities. The one thing that really establishes a true 'copwatch' is whether or not the group participates in direct monitoring of police in the streets.

Have you achieved recognition and support in the communities you're active in?

Berkeley Copwatch has been around for 18 years so most people know who we are and it is most common that people who are being stopped by police know who we are and appreciate our presence at stops. In 2001, a community action team survey of African Americans living in Berkeley found that 7% of respondents identified as members of Copwatch. While they do not attend meetings or even have a formal relationship to the organizers/organization of Copwatch, they support the work and even identify as part of the Copwatch community.

Is Cop Watch activism having an effect on police behavior and/or community empowerment in these areas?

Police in Berkeley know about Copwatch and individual cops have different strategies for dealing with it. Some cops are extremely polite to Copwatchers and accommodating while others are openly belligerent. However, there are many reports of police behavior CHANGING when Copwatchers arrive at a stop. Most often, the cops de-escalate their aggression. However, there are cops who abuse detainees as a way to be aggressive against and discredit Copwatchers. Copwatch has empowered members of the community and especially politically inactive youth. While bureaucratic solutions to political problems hold little promise or interest for many disillusioned, inner-city youth, copwatching is a direct and immediate response to abusive police. It requires skills that these youth often possess or can quickly attain (experience with police, knowledge of technology, familiarity with neighborhood). In addition, Copwatching is easily adapted to different localities and situations. Berkeley Copwatch training materials and reports are available for free on our website and we have a training DVD that is very useful to educators, organizers and anyone else who wants to take on police misconduct in an organized way.

What is the gang/organised crime situation in these neighborhoods? How does Cop Watch interact with these groups?

There is not a big gang problem in Berkeley. Neighborhood youth often identify with particular neighborhoods and this sometimes leads to conflicts between them. Copwatch has worked within these neighborhoods and made contacts with young people there. While they are often very supportive of our program, they are reluctant to participate due to fear of retaliation by police. This leads us to the question of the role of privilege in this movement because it is not uncommon for white people to be able to observe and videotape cops in action where a person of color would get attacked for doing the very same thing. We are always seeking to strengthen our ties with community groups in those areas, participate in community activities such as Juneteenth and to make one on one connections with people as we do our Copwatch shifts.

Tactics:

Do you see Cop Watch as part of a revolutionary strategy?

Copwatch is not in itself a revolutionary organization. We do not put forward a program for social change or a single analysis of social relations. However, Copwatch has served as a point of entry to people who were previously unaware of police misconduct and who have not yet developed an analysis of state sponsored violence. As individuals observe and analyze police trends and acts of violence, they can develop a critique that calls into question the actual role of police in a fundamentally unjust society. Copwatch welcomes people from any political or religious orientation. What these individuals do with their experience and education is up to them. Copwatch can be seen as part of a revolutionary strategy in as much as Copwatch seeks to reduce community reliance on police and to seek alternative, community based justice structures and forms. Eventually, Copwatch might become part of a larger, multi-faceted and united front for a fundamental socio-political restructuring in America.

Has there been a crossover into other forms of community organising?

Over the years, Copwatchers have come from and gone on to a wide variety of social justice organizations and movements. Generally, Copwatch activists have a more localized orientation as to how to empower oppressed people and often work directly with oppressed people in the neighborhoods. Copwatch has participated in coalition work around specific issues related to police accountability. We also work with organizations that advocate on behalf of homeless people, young people of color, alleged gang members and groups in other cities who want support starting their own Copwatch type organization.. Berkeley Copwatch is also participating in student organizing because many of our members are UC Berkeley students. Other forms of organizing include the one on one support that we provide to individuals as well as campaigns to stop the introduction of tasers, police dogs etc. into our community. We have also been using our investigation into police corruption as a way to expose larger questions about police conduct rather than just the “one bad apple” explanation that is so common and yet so inadequate to explain the pervasiveness of police misconduct. Recently, we have made efforts to strengthen the national network of Copwatch type groups by organizing the first National Copwatch Conference this past summer where people from 12 different states and about 30 different groups attended.

What does the future hold for Cop Watch?

Hopefully, Copwatch will increase its visibility in the neighborhoods to the point where everyone is a Copwatcher and police behavior is kept in check because of the vigilance of the community. Through education, the people of Berkeley will come to understand that police accountability is the responsibility of all the citizens of the town. We hope that alongside an increase in observation and monitoring of police, Copwatch will play a role in helping to develop neighborhood justice forums and committees that can help to reduce community dependence on police. We support community based solutions to the problem of crime and approaches that deal with the root causes of crimes of economy, namely poverty. Economic justice is the number one crime prevention strategy. If neighborhoods can figure out how to reduce calls for service within the community, we can isolate the police and reduce incidents of abuse by police.

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