Joe Arpaio's Deputies Harass Activists with Cameras, but Arpaio Acknowledged Observers' Right to Film in 2006

The letter from Sheriff Joe acknowledging the rights of legal observers
The letter from Sheriff Joe acknowledging the rights of legal observers

Sheriff Arpaio's boys in beige have begun a war within a war against those who observe them -- activists armed with video cameras who listen to police scanners during Arpaio's racial profiling sweeps and scramble to find the stop and capture it on camera.

During the last sweep -- which occurred during Labor Day weekend in southwest Phoenix -- activists, reporters, lawyers, and at least one politician were harassed. In one case, a legal observer was ordered to give up his camera because it had become "evidence" in the words of the deputy. That deputy took off once a local news crew showed up.

In another incident at the Gran Mercado, activist/radio show host Carlos Galindo says his video camera was taken from him as he filmed deputies "investigating" bootleg CDs and DVDs. Galindo claims they took the camera from him, erased the video and gave it back. But, Galindo indicates on the YouTube video he posted that he was able to retrieve the video in any case.

Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski was harassed by deputies as he observed their activity in the parking lot of a Burger King. Even though deputies finally allowed him to approach and ask questions, Nowakowski was later warned via letter from the MCSO not to interfere with MCSO investigations. Videographer Dennis Gilman caught the Nowakowski incident on tape, and has posted it to his YouTube site Humaneague002.

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Gilman's video of the south Phoenix sweep, featuring Councilman Michael Nowakowski

Interestingly, Arpaio himself acknowledged the right of activists to legally observe arrests in a 2006 letter sent to Sean Whitcomb, an activist with Copwatch, an organization in Phoenix dedicated to monitoring all police agencies in the Valley. In a response to a letter from Whitcomb sent to advise the MCSO of what Copwatch would be doing, Arpaio even went so far as to solicit their help with any malfeasance they might observe.

"Thank you for taking the time to give us a brief synopsis about your organization's concern for police brutality," states the letter, signed by Arpaio. 

The correspondence goes on to say, "If you feel that you have observed any misconduct by any of our employees, please call the Sheriff's Administration..."

(You can read Arpaio's letter, here, and Whitcomb's letter prompting that response, here.)

Though Copwatch was out observing this latest sweep, not all of those videotaping are Copwatch members. Asked why he thought there were so many conflicts with legal observers this last time out, Whitcomb chalked it up to confusion on the deputies' parts as to how to deal with them.

"I think it's because deputies are not being trained on how to handle encounters with observers," said Whitcomb. "There are some who are familiar with Copwatchers being there, and there are some who are not, and who are uncomfortable with it. I think it comes down to them being uncomfortable with the public knowing exactly what they are doing.

"An officer who is doing everything according to the letter of the law, has nothing to fear from being videotaped," continued Whitcomb. "But those who feel like what they're doing is not appropriate or who feel like the entire operation leaves a bad taste in their mouths, then they might not feel comfortable with being personally a part of it."

Whitcomb said Copwatch has been around since 1999, and has dozens of active members. None of its members have ever been arrested or had their cameras confiscated by local gendarmes, he informed. (Carlos Galindo, mentioned above, is not a Copwatch member.) Each Copwatch member goes through about two to three hours of training devised with the help of lawyers.

Radio host/activist Carlos Galindo's video from Gran Mercado, right at the beginning of the last MCSO sweep

Copwatch usually films public police activity from about 20 feet away, according to Whitcomb. When an officer or deputy tells them they cannot film, they inform the law enforcement officer of their legal right to do so, and the officer usually relents.Whitcomb also pointed out that when Copwatch is present, the law enforcement officers in question are more likely to do things by the book, smile more, and be polite to the citizens they've halted.

Recently Arpaio has made statements to the media regarding a mysterious new tool he may have to counter those supposedly "interfering" with his deputies' investigations. He's also spoken of activists with video cameras disparagingly. But in 2006, at least, he was singing a different tune.  


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