Cruising for Cops

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

The AAAB is one of a handful of advisory groups started in 1997 by former Phoenix Police Chief Dennis Garrett. Both the hot line and the advisory's goal are to establish a communication between the police department and the public.

Every major city in the county has similar nightmares. The best recruiting, training and command oversight won't guarantee faultless conduct among all officers.

"We need to watch those that have power rather than those that don't in this society," says Olson. "Those that don't have power obviously get identified as criminals and crooks and obviously some of them do bad things. But we think that you should watch those who have power. Those who are given a gun by the powers at be."

Copwatch pays for its equipment through personal donations from its members and punk-rock benefits.
Paolo Vescia
Copwatch pays for its equipment through personal donations from its members and punk-rock benefits.
Joel Olson says his group wants to "make the cops change their behavior."
Paolo Vescia
Joel Olson says his group wants to "make the cops change their behavior."

Yet few cops have heard of Copwatch. Very few. "I haven't heard of them and I know not many around here have heard of them, either," says Tony Morales, a spokesman for the Phoenix PD. "Are they pro or con the police?"

An administrative officer at Central City Precinct says he's heard only one patrol officer make reference to Copwatch. "Yeah, he said these guys had cameras and were videotaping us. They had on matching shirts," the desk officer says.

When New Times asked Phoenix PD for the number of excessive-force complaints filed against its officers during the past two years, a spokesman replied that the request was broad and might take weeks to compile.

In Phoenix, the police department diversity breakdown of sworn officers is as follows: Of 2,571 sworn officers, 2,115 are white; 304 Hispanic; 349 female; 101 are black, 40 Asian; and 10 Native American.

Tempe cops working the Mill beat seem nonplussed by the Copwatchers. Most acknowledge that their jobs are matters of public record.

"I don't think anybody [on the force] is gonna give you their opinion" of Copwatch, says Tempe Police Sergeant David Lind.

"All we ask is that they do the same thing every other citizen does, and that's just allow us to do our job," Lind continues. "If they have a question about what we do I would hope they don't step in while we are doing what we are doing. If they want to address the situation, that's fine, they just have to choose the right time to address it. There are laws allowing an officer to do his or her job safely.

"You know . . . I think some of those people in Copwatch think we are opposed to them. We're not opposed to them."

Lind quickly compiled records of only use-of-force complaints in Tempe -- 21 in 1998; and 41 in 1997, he says. In all, there were 143 complaints in 1998; and 185 in 1997.

At a Saturday night pre-patrol meeting in a central Phoenix coffee house, four members of Copwatch are gathered around a back-room table. Present are Mike Emo, Brannon Lockrem, Reynolds and Olson.

By appearances you would think they were a group of militant vegetarians honing their social consciences over cups of Joe. They're too methodically down-dressed and earnest-looking to be caught anywhere near bourgeoisie trappings like frilly cocktails or DJ mixes.

"Home contact tonight is Audrey," Olson announces.

On the table in front of him is the group's check list inventorying patrol necessities. Everything from penlights and blank videotapes to police codes and a lawyer's phone number are listed. Olson goes through and checks off each one.

"Nobody here is currently under the influence of alcohol or drugs?" he asks. The others shake their heads. "No one here has any illegal substances on their person? No one is carrying a weapon without the express knowledge and consent of the entire patrol? Everyone here is mentally and physically prepared for the patrol, and no one possess an attitude or frame of mind that could hurt the patrol?"

Olson divvies up the night's chores: Reynolds will navigate and monitor the scanner, Emo will fill out incident report sheets and take notes, and Lockrem will decipher scanner codes and videotape. Since the group uses a rental car and Olson is the sole member in possession of a credit card, he drives.

"When we first went out back in February, we were really scared about what was going to happen; we weren't sure what to expect," laughs 20-year-old Lockrem in the back seat of the rental. "Then, when we walked up, the very first thing that happened was all the people in the [pulled over] car clapped and applauded us."

Scanner calls come every few minutes. In the first 20 minutes there's an assault, a pair of domestic violence calls, a gun-wielding drunk at a party, a shooting, a kidnaping and an armed-robbery suspect. The group votes to observe the police with the robbery suspect. Usually they go for proximity, the nearer the better. They say it's not uncommon for them to beat the cops to a scene.

Outside of a brooding, mushroom-colored county housing complex near 18th and Washington streets, the car glides to a stop. The Copwatch cadre steps out and moves toward a group of Latinos being questioned by three cops. The group's flaming orange shirts against the dusky night offer little aid in a graceful or subtle approach. Palms sweat and hearts rush at athletic speeds with the understanding that anything could go wrong.

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