Black Lives Matter Sacramento, the group that advocated for police reforms following the fatal shooting of a mentally ill black man in 2016, says it plans to deploy a group of camera-wielding volunteers to watch police.
The group is starting a "copwatch" program – an organized effort in which participants videotape and otherwise document police activity in a community. Participants in such programs around the country often wear clothing or signage that lets both community members and police know what they are doing.
Early forms of cop watching date to the 1960s, when Black Panthers and members of other civil rights organizations patrolled city streets with cameras, according to a 2016 California Law Review essay. The practice gained new traction around the nation after a series of instances in which police officers killed young black men, including Joseph Mann, who was shot by Sacramento police in North Sacramento.
The Sacramento Black Lives Matter chapter is holding an orientation in May where organizers hope to recruit volunteers. Tanya Faison, the group’s founder, says she's not sure how many people will show or when the first copwatch patrols will take place, though organizers hope to begin this summer.
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The orientation is scheduled for May 26 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Belle Cooledge branch of the Sacramento Public Library. Nearly 400 people have indicated on Facebook that they are either going or are interested in attending.
“The goal is to make sure that we’re watching what the police do and we’re documenting it,” Faison said. “We’re not intervening.”
Tim Davis, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association, said the extra cameras are unnecessary. He noted that the Sacramento Police Department has already “gone a long way to ensure transparency in Sacramento” with a series of recent policy changes. He pointed to the addition of body cameras in recent months, dash cameras and a video release policy that requires footage of in-custody deaths and police shootings be made public within 30 days.
The department has also released footage of incidents that weren’t required under the city’s ordinance, he said. Last week, it made public video footage of an incident in which a man allegedly unholstered an officer’s gun and tried to shoot him, though the entire incident wasn't filmed because the officer's body camera fell off.
“There’s not really a need to introduce additional cameras in this monitoring process,” Davis said. “They (officers) do this day in and day out with body cameras, in-car cameras and public scrutiny and they do a fantastic job.”
Eddie Macaulay, a Sacramento Police Department spokesman, said citizens who have concerns about an officer’s conduct can go to the department’s internal affairs unit, call dispatchers and ask to speak to a supervisor or file a complaint with the city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability, which also investigates complaints of police misconduct.
Overall, he said the department’s officers are “there to protect everybody’s constitutional rights.”
Faison said that while the passage of the video release policy in November 2016 was an improvement, the videos that have been released by the department often don't capture the incident itself. The video releases also only apply to severe incidents like officer-involved shootings, she added.
“You’re getting a lot of videos of police vehicles driving up to the scene after the fact, so you don't really don’t know what happened,” she said. “It kind of defeats the purpose.”
Davis pointed to possible issues that arise when cop watchers interfere with police, though Faison said it’s not the group’s intent to do so.
She said the copwatch program will formalize some of the work community members have done in the past.
In April 2017, for instance, a woman recorded and posted footage of a Sacramento Police officer punching a black man named Nandi Cain in the face after he allegedly jaywalked in Del Paso Heights.
Sacramento County eventually settled a case with Cain over abuse he allegedly suffered at the Sacramento County Main Jail following his arrest. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office declined to file criminal charges against Anthony Figueroa, the officer who beat Cain in the street. He returned to patrol.
A month later, community activists rushed to the scene of a Del Paso Heights parking lot and began livestreaming after Black Lives Matter Sacramento received a panicked call from a woman about her husband. The woman said he had mental health problems and that she was told police had him surrounded after they received a call about an assault in an SUV.
The woman was eventually able to get to the scene and urge police to de-escalate the situation, which they did.
“The guns got taken down and instead they pulled out Tasers,” Faison said of the incident.
She said the idea is for trained volunteers to conduct patrols in certain neighborhoods, starting in Oak Park and eventually expanding to Del Paso Heights, Valley Hi and Citrus Heights, among others. The group is also interested in starting a regional hotline residents can use to let volunteers know of any incidents involving police and members of the public.
A flyer for Sacramento Copwatch says volunteers will be asked to film police from a reasonable distance. They are instructed to collect as much information as they can, including badge numbers.
Marc Krupanski, a longtime community organizer and advocate of copwatching who has written about the topic, says taking video of encounters with police makes neighbors more aware of their rights. He said the mere presence of copwatchers and rolling video cameras can sometimes help de-escalate tense situations, and also ensures there’s footage of an incident from a different perspective than what may be recorded in a dash camera or body-worn camera.
Krupanski, who is based in New York, said that while copwatchers may sometimes walk a fine line, especially when they are trying to communicate with a person in the process of being arrested, overall, courts have supported witnesses’ right to videotape and watch police.