A version of this story originally appeared in the September issue of VICE magazine.
Jose LaSalle always told his stepson Alvin: "Watch the cops." So when three undercover NYPD officers stopped Alvin on the street, grabbed his book bag, and twisted his arm, the 16 year old didn't fight back. Instead, he hit Record on his phone and asked the police why they were giving him a hard time.
"For being a fucking mutt," one said.
Alvin was one of more than half a million people police targeted for a stop-and-frisk in New York in 2011. But the audio evidence shocked the city: it went viral, prompted an investigation, and helped turn public opinion against the city's stop-and-frisk policies.
This past August, just blocks from where Alvin was apprehended in East Harlem, his stepfather was watching the cops himself. Dressed entirely in black, camcorder in hand, LaSalle walked straight up to an NYPD cruiser as if the two cops inside were lost and had flagged him down to ask for directions.
He smiled at the officers, exposing a gold tooth. They glanced up, no doubt seeing the homemade badge pinned to LaSalle's shirt. "Copwatch patrol unit (CPU)," it read. "Silence is consent."
"Good evening, officers" LaSalle said. "You're stopped too far ahead of the paint." He was right. The car was idling just a few feet past the white line dividing traffic from the busy Harlem intersection.
The cops looked up at him, seemingly confused, then drove away when the light turned green. "They aren't allowed to do that," LaSalle said. "And they know it." He wrote in a small spiral notebook whose pages were filled with police infractions, minor and major, that LaSalle said he observed, filmed, and filed away.
Jose LaSalle watches two officers stop and search a teenager outside a deli on 125th Street in Harlem. (Photo by Tess Owen/VICE News)
LaSalle is a small part of a much larger movement. Over the past year-and-a-half, police violence in places like New York, Baltimore, and Ferguson grabbed headlines, sparked mass protest, and drove down public confidence in law enforcement to a 22 year low. In response, people across the country have been fashioning makeshift uniforms, arming themselves with cameras, and patrolling streets to document police misconduct. It's an explosion of a movement that has been around for many years. This is Copwatch.
More than 15 years ago, long before YouTube and camera phones, Jacob Crawford began filming cops in Northern California. Over the past few years, Crawford has seen Copwatch morph from a small cadre of hardcore activists to a national movement. In 2012, he helped found We Copwatch, a coalition that has trained Copwatchers in several dozen cities.
"We're about Copwatch finding its way into the communities that need it most," he said.
When Michael Brown was shot by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson last year, Crawford flew to the scene. Amid the protests, Crawford organized a series of Copwatch training sessions and helped raise thousands of dollars to buy cameras for people living in Brown's neighborhood.
"It's a way for people to have a moment to breathe and keep each other safe," Crawford said. The group Crawford helped train in Ferguson now calls itself the Canfield Watchmen, named after the apartment complex where Brown lived.
David Whitt still lives in Canfield, feet away from where Brown was shot in the street, and he now helps to coordinate the Watchmen.
"The overall consensus in Canfield is that cops are not to be trusted," he said. "We all have to watch them. It's a matter of survival."
Since Brown's death, Whitt says he and his fellow Watchmen have come to think of themselves as a shield, protecting their neighborhood from the authorities. When police show up on their block, Whitt and his team quickly show up, armed with cameras. Ultimately, Whitt says his neighborhood would be a better place if the police were all but scrapped entirely.
"We don't need police riding down the street harassing folks," he said. "They are straight-up bullies — what we need is an emergency response team that only comes when we call them."
Copwatch members are hardly all police abolitionists, however. Some work with authorities to advocate for incremental reforms. "All these groups are motivated by an instinct that communities should control policing," said Alex Vitale, an associate sociology professor at Brooklyn College who studies policing. "It's seen as a mechanism for creating some local accountability."
In New York City, for instance, some Copwatch groups are united under the banner of Peoples' Justice, a nonprofit that takes a non-confrontational approach. Others, such as LaSalle's unit, are more aggressive and sometimes heckle officers.
On a hot August night, LaSalle was joined by Steve Cruz, the captain of the Harlem patrol unit and LaSalle's "homie from back in the day." The pair, along with another Copwatcher, stood outside a Shell gas station on First Avenue and East 117th Street, where four plainclothes officers had confiscated an illegal dirt bike.
"Look," LaSalle said. "They're hovering over it like a dead gazelle."
A group of neighborhood kids approached the gas station. Emboldened by LaSalle's presence, one rode his bike on the sidewalks — a ticketable offense.
"Hey, why don't you guys go solve some real crimes?" one teenager told police. LaSalle, meanwhile, noticed that one of the officers was wearing his badge upside down. "An infraction," he noted.
LaSalle then motioned to his team, and the three men walked away from the neon green lights of the gas station. The teens then scattered immediately. "You see?" LaSalle said. "They feel powerful when we're here, but once we leave, they won't go anywhere near the police."
Cari Thotlife records plainclothes police officers in East Harlem. (Photo by Tess Owen/VICE News)
Beyond monitoring the police, Copwatch also shifts the balance of power on the streets. While city halls and the Department of Justice are setting up independent prosecutors for police violence and pushing to outfit cops with body cameras, Copwatchers say the cameras should be focused squarely on the cops themselves.
"It matters who's looking through the lens," said Nikki Jones, a professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley. "Police will use [body-cam footage] in service of their concerns." The cameras can be turned on and off, and the footage can be tampered with or edited in the aftermath of an incident.
"We are told police violence is supposed to be handled institutionally," Jones added. "But the popularity of Copwatch is a strong indication that the police still lack real legitimacy in many neighborhoods."
For as long as Copwatcher Kim Ortiz can remember, she's been suspicious of the police. Officers would often visit her elementary schools in East Harlem and the Bronx telling the kids that "cops are good, drugs are bad." But everyday life in her neighborhoods suggested things were more complicated. Ortiz remembers in particular something she witnessed at age 7 while taking a walk to the post office with her grandmother.
"I saw a young, dark-skinned man wearing a green T-shirt," Ortiz recalled. "He was running through the street, and then I heard a loud noise and he dropped to the ground." Years later, Ortiz's grandmother explained that the man had been shot by a police officer. The realization that police shoot people on the street shocked her.
On a recent Copwatch patrol, she handed out fliers informing people of their rights and explaining what Copwatch is. Some passersby talked about housing projects or neighborhoods where more oversight of the police was needed. Ortiz scribbled their recommendations in a notepad. "We're so accustomed to seeing people pulled over and frisked that we walk right past it," she said.
Beyond holding the police accountable, Ortiz hopes to mobilize others to confront police in their communities. "You don't need a Copwatch patrol movement — you need a cellphone," she said.
This is a common hope among Copwatchers — that the group's patrol units will eventually simply become entire communities who see it as their right to monitor the police's every move. They believe that then, and only then, police violence will become a thing of the past.
Kim Ortiz on a routine Thursday Copwatch patrol in Harlem. (Photo by Tess Owen/VICE News)
The mere presence of a Copwatcher does not guarantee that police will be held accountable. When NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death last year after Garner was allegedly caught illegally selling cigarettes, the entire incident was filmed. But Pantaleo was cleared of any wrongdoing. And even as Copwatchers flooded the streets over the past year, data analysis by VICE News revealed that only 1.5 percent of officers involved in civilian deaths in the past 12 months have been indicted or charged.
"I don't know what perfect police accountability looks like, but I can tell you I'm not going to sit around and wait for it," Crawford of We Copwatch said. "The thing that is so important now is that everyone becomes Copwatch — that these spaces created by Copwatchers aren't just temporary."
Both Cruz and LaSalle appear to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the NYPD patrol guide, and they take great pleasure in calling officers out on minor violations. It's an approach that's not unlike the "broken windows" policing in which authorities crack down on petty offenses — like kids riding bikes on the sidewalk — to send a message that no crime will be tolerated.
LaSalle uses that logic when it comes to surveilling cops. To him, a small infraction on the part of police — like not properly displaying a badge — could set a dangerous precedent for future violations, which may become increasingly serious when nobody is looking. "We want to be a fly buzzing in their ear," he said. "They use 'broken windows' on us, and we turn it on them."
The authorities have begun to notice. A recent investigation by the Intercept revealed that the NYPD spied on LaSalle as part of a wider investigation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The NYPD took note of his presence at protests and circulated his picture inside the department. On Thee RANT, an anonymous online forum for cops, LaSalle and his fellow Copwatchers are called "assclowns," "drug-dealing ex-con savages," and "qweers."
"The job can't seem to reach a consensus on how to deal with all of these 'videographers,'" one user wrote last year. "I have an idea how I will handle it, when the situation arises, but until it happens, I will keep it to myself, since I'm sure it will make some waves."
Russell Williams, a retired police officer who served in the NYPD for 26 years, said most police officers are troubled that most Copwatchers arrive on the scene only after a crime has allegedly been committed and "thus may lack perspective and think that the police are hassling someone for no reason." He also thinks that Copwatchers don't understand that the law is not always enforced without trouble. "Any good police officer should be against brutality," Williams said, but "sometimes force has to be used, and it won't be pretty."
The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Last August, amid the civil unrest that followed the deaths of Brown and Garner, LaSalle attended the monthly meeting held by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an independent body whose purpose is to receive and investigate complaints made against the NYPD. He got up in front of the board and read out a list of infractions, many of them minor, like an officer spitting in the street or using a cell phone on duty. "Whenever we see officers doing what they're not supposed to be doing," LaSalle said, "we file complaints against them."
So far, LaSalle has filed more than 30 complaints with the CCRB, though he doesn't have much faith in the process. "Police officers say to themselves, 'CCRB, they're a joke. I ain't worried about them.'"
He knows that he and his fellow watchers are tremendously outmatched — at least for now. "It's true that Copwatchers by themselves are going to have a tough time revolutionizing policing," Vitale, the sociologist, explained. "But Copwatch is bringing people through the front door and building a larger movement.... That could be very powerful."