Cruising for Cops

Copwatch, an earnest band of volunteers, aims to stamp out police brutality -- and vanquish institutional racism -- by aiming a camera.

A Tempe police spokesman says racial profiling doesn't occur in his community.

"Our job is to enforce the laws," says Sergeant David Lind. "Your status as far as class has nothing to do with how we do our job. And I would have to ask him [Olson] how we do that, because I am not aware of that ever occurring.

"I don't know how to respond to him, his allegations are absolutely ludicrous. I can only speak for specifically us. But I don't know of any police department here in the Valley or here in the state doing anything that he is alleging."

Founder Joel Olson.
Paolo Vescia
Founder Joel Olson.
A Copwatch volunteer monitors a police scanner.
Paolo Vescia
A Copwatch volunteer monitors a police scanner.

Copwatch member Pat Schwind acknowledges that police "have a tough job. And I wouldn't want to say that it is an automatic given that minorities are picked on more than white people. But to me out on Mill, it has appeared that way."

State NAACP president Oscar Tillman, who is vaguely familiar with Copwatch, believes Olson and his followers overstate their allegations of institutional racism on police departments.

"The fact is I don't see how you can really enforce the color line," says Tillman, a frequent critic of police tactics.

Yet Tillman agrees that police departments deserve their reputations for brutality, and he welcomes Copwatch's efforts.

"Whatever group happens to be monitoring them [police], they have to live with," he says. "Through abuse, the police have brought about this type of monitoring. The driving-while-black situation the police have created on their own."

Copwatch groups in a dozen or more cities thrive via Web sites, chat rooms, newsletters and civic support. Cities such as Portland, Oakland, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Tucson all have grassroots Copwatch groups. Though similar in namesake and philosophies, there is no national umbrella or governing body. The Valley group, however, is loosely connected with the other Copwatch groups, through letters and e-mails. And most share philosophical backgrounds, holding civil-rights trailblazers as exemplars.

Ultimately, Copwatch's objective is to end police brutality in the Valley. To end fatal police shootings. They believe that police administrators and elected officials lack the political will to establish actual police accountability. And since the nation's 19,000 law enforcement agencies are essentially independent, Copwatch's battle against police abuse is primarily local.

And there have been plenty of local horror stories in recent years.

The 1994 death of Edward Mallet, a black double-amputee who died after being stopped by police and put into a choke hold, cost the city of Phoenix $5.3 million.

In 1996, 13 Phoenix Police officers fired 89 rounds at a shotgun-wielding gang member named Rudy Buchanan". Buchanan was struck 30 times, even in the soles of his feet. His family won a $500,000 settlement from Phoenix.

Later that year, it took four bullets, 20 shotgun pellets and six officers to kill 16-year-old Julio Valerio, who was armed with a knife.

There was the Latino Scottsdale officer who told a jury of a "no-nigger zone" in that city. There were allegations of racially based police crackdowns on Scottsdale clubs catering to a hip-hop music crowd.

How can one forget the story told by ASU student Alvin Yellowhair, who in March 1998, claimed he was arrested then dragged from a police escort van and clubbed, maced and sodomized with a nightstick by a Tempe cop? An investigation cleared the alleged assailant.

Olson says his group wants "to make the cops change their behavior. The goal is not only to change their behavior while we are watching, but also the next time they go out and do an arrest, they'll go by the book because we might be watching. To change their behavior even when we are not there because they have to look over their shoulder."

Copwatch doesn't want to provoke confrontations with the police.

Its members only observe. None of its members claims to have been physically abused by police, but most say they have gotten some tongue-lashings. None is angry or bored -- all have full lives apart from Copwatch.

The group pays for its tee shirts, still and video cameras, notebooks, pads and pencils, and car rentals and gasoline from members chipping in personal cash on patrol nights. A treasurer keeps an accounting and receipts. Add it together and it spells personal sanctification.

Many of these guys are your basic labor-force lackeys drawing wages busing tables or arranging boxes in warehouses. Area punk bands united last year at a Tempe bowling alley, mixing loud, angst power-chords and long days to hale hundreds for the Copwatch cause. The charity punk ball afforded Copwatch a video camera and a scanner. Manna from heaven without the benefit of media attention.

The Copwatch crew is striving to achieve identity and credibility -- and to have sufficient volunteers to allow one or more weekly street patrols (no member does more than one shift). The members want the public to recognize that observing the police is not only a right but also a necessity. They want to educate people about their constitutional rights in the event they are stopped or arrested.

"I come in contact with police a lot, and I think what they [Copwatch] are doing is good," says the Phoenix criminal defense attorney Jay Ciulla, who has offered to help Copwatch pro bono in the event of a pinch. He's also advised them on how to avoid getting arrested themselves.

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