Cruising for Cops

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

There is no law that states a person can't watch the police detain people. A cop can only tell you to move along if you are posing a legitimate risk to an officer, suspect or to an investigation. Still, Ciulla tells the volunteers to identify themselves and explain they are only observing.

"With the age of the Internet, freedom of the press and everything else, if they post these things on an Internet Web site, they could be considered press, really," Ciulla says.

During every foot patrol, strangers approach to inquire about membership. Many have their own stories of unpleasant encounters with police officers.

Picking up traffic on a police scanner is one way Copwatch monitors police.
Paolo Vescia
Picking up traffic on a police scanner is one way Copwatch monitors police.
Jean Reynolds and Joel Olson on Patrol.
Paolo Vescia
Jean Reynolds and Joel Olson on Patrol.

The only prerequisite for Copwatch membership is a dislike for police brutality. According to the group's 13-page training manual, Copwatch won't discriminate against anyone but employees of law-enforcement agencies and hotheads, fascists and anyone out for revenge on a cop.

"People that seem the most interested . . . are probably the young kids that you see, and the young punks," says 27-year-old Jean Reynolds, one of two articulate female insurgents who does Copwatch duty. "The ones who are subject to a lot of harassment because of their lifestyle. And the other group would be people of color, you know, Chicanos, Latinos, African-Americans. The ones that say to us, 'Yeah, you know, because of where we come from we are always getting stopped all of the time.'"

Reynolds, active in Copwatch for more than a year, holds a master's degree in history from ASU. She met Olson and other Ruckus members during a march from Guadalupe to Chandler in protest of the Chandler INS police sweeps in which dark-skinned people, including many U.S. citizens, were detained.

"They're institutionalized with these dated ways of operation," Reynolds continues. "For me it's not a personal vendetta. It's not that I think they are horrible. It's not a way for me to say, 'Fuck authority.' It's all much deeper than that for me. It's about my concern for people's human rights and their civil rights."

Copwatch itself has been a target. Expletives and spittle commonly confront Copwatchers patrolling Mill Avenue. They've been called everything from nigger-lovers to cop-haters. Sheriff's deputies on Mill one evening offered the Copwatch contingent smug snickers and derisive snorts.

So the backbone and personal sacrifice exhibited by Copwatch members is refreshing -- particularly considering the overload of ironic gesture and apathy that has supplanted real passion in our culture. But the group's radical theories seem guaranteed to frighten off the shortsighted and invite ridicule by the public at large.

Grassroots activism, particularly community policing and police-watchdog groups, has in many cities kindled a new spirit of public-police relations.

"If they can really make the police an actual part of the community," says Olson, "then I really wouldn't have a big problem with it. But the way it is now just seems to me a more insidious way of carrying out the same old goals."

"I go and talk to community groups, and I know it is a concern, it is always a concern," says Hurtt using the delicacy of a florist in word arrangement. "There is always groups who feel they have been unequally contacted, I guess, by law enforcement. And that is something, historically, that we now invariably have to deal with. How do we overcome that concern that a certain element of our community may have been the victims of racial profiling?"

Generally, public complaints against an officer either are filtered through the department's Professional Standards Bureau or the individual officer's supervisor. The complaint process is lengthy. The immediate supervisor investigates all complaints unless that supervisor is also involved; in which case the next supervisor up handles the investigation.

The Phoenix Police Department has a citizen-review panel called the Disciplinary Review Board. That board hears complaints if the investigation warrants a suspension. The review board contains two officers chosen at random, two civilian representatives chosen from a rotating list and two commandeers. The chief oversees the board. The officer under investigation has a right to appear in front of the board and tell his side of the story.

Police internal-affairs divisions are considered crucial to resolving police brutality. Copwatch regards the idea of police policing their own as laughable and supports creation of strong civilian-review boards run by citizens and vested with investigative and punitive powers.

According to an extensive examination of internal affairs units in 14 major cities released last year by Human Rights Watch, no outside review, including its own, had found operations of internal-affairs divisions in any of the cities satisfactory.

Debate over police use of force is pandemic. A recent U.S. Department of Justice report says that one in five Americans has face-to-face contact with a police officer each year, and 1 percent of those say cops either used or threatened to use force against them (however, a majority of those say their own actions may have sparked the cops).

The City of Phoenix's African-American Advisory Board's (AAAB) Community Information Hotline is a resource designed to accept and document reports of creditable and contemptible cop behavior on behalf of citizens. AAAB program director A.J. Miller, a 22-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department, says that in the first three months since the hot line's March inception, the group received 43 complaints against cops. Of those, 21 saw resolve.

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