Cruising for Cops
A kid limps up and offers his palm. He wears a black Misfits tour shirt and Marine fatigues, glittery combat boots and a teal-colored mess of hair. Framed by the hazy hues of Mill Avenue on a Friday night, he seems an antagonistic juxtaposition to the street's sugary chain-store harmony. All around him on the cool breeze float garbled laughter, sweet-smelling perfumes and the incessant drone of backed-up traffic.
"You spare a coupla bucks, bro?" asks the kid, his tongue heavy with multiple piercings. "You spare a coupla bucks?"
Tolerance, however, does not extend to the tastes of the scrubbed and well-dressed strollers who pass the kid and his pagan ilk as they sit on a tree well. Most regard this faction reason enough to lose brew-pub-happy expressions and step up their gaits.
The many cops on horse, bicycle and foot in the vicinity are poised to accept any complaint about the actions of the Mill rats.
Pat Schwind, a stoic, thin-haired man with a firm expression, moves toward the punk. Schwind's bright orange tee shirt is like a fire drill amid a sea of khaki and pastel. Stenciled on his shirt are the words "Copwatch" and "Stop Police Brutality." He clutches a stack of small fold-out cards, which he has been doling to willing and unwilling recipients along Mill for an hour.
"Are you aware of your rights, sir?" Schwind asks the punk while handing him a card. "Do you know what to do in the event you are arrested by the police?"
The kid accepts the card with reluctance, opens it, and looks it over quickly. Then, relieved, like an infantry soldier meeting a foreign ally for the first time, he nods at Schwind.
"Are these my rights?"
"That's right," the older man says emphatically, nodding as if to concede that he, too, is down with the good fight. "Learn 'em. You never know."
Schwind turns away and files in with the push of people moving north along Mill, stopping every 10 feet to give out the so-called "bust cards" and Copwatch pamphlets. He and three other members of the all-volunteer group Copwatch do this until closing time.
Schwind is an assiduous member of a Phoenix-based group called Copwatch, volunteers whose purpose is to monitor police in hopes of keeping them accountable. Armed with everything from pencils and pamphlets to scanners and video cameras, the Copwatch activists regularly take to Valley streets.
Copwatch asserts that police brutality is a given, not an exception, and that it is directly related to a long history of white supremacy in this country. If you fight police brutality, they claim, then you fight racism.
Farther down Mill, a group of four older, drink-dazed bums debate the procedures the bust cards recommend for detainees. Because the card outlines 12 steps, two of the bums dismiss the advice as more Alcoholics Anonymous jargon.
An interlocutor sporting a Medusa-like 'do says, "Believe me, if the laws change to shit, I want to know about it, and that's what deese people are 'apposed to do, and they're passing it on to us, brother. Don't you relate to that?"
"How do we see they are who you say they are?" asks a friend who wears a dirty Arizona Cardinals jersey and has yellow eyes and cropped gray hair.
"All right. Understand what I said?" the first one replies. "How many times you been to jail? And how many times too many is that? Hmmmm?"
It is perhaps a measure of success that in its brief history of street patrols, Copwatch video cameras have caught no Rodney King sequels on tape. Police officers are aware of Copwatchers' presence. Then again, perhaps it's because police aren't really as brutal as Copwatch believes they are.
But there's little doubt that Copwatch has some impact on police etiquette. Recent observations on Mill Avenue in Tempe -- both with and without the Copwatchers -- showed that when Copwatch's video camera was rolling, officers' postures improved, their smiles broadened and they became more animated.
Joel Olson, who founded Phoenix Copwatch last year, sees that as progress in his crusade.
Copwatch -- an outgrowth of Ruckus, another counterculture group Olson founded -- holds that police are the foot soldiers in a class system based on race. Copwatch believes a subtext of all police work is to ensure that a city's black neighborhoods stay black and white neighborhoods stay white.
Olson, 32, is married, well-mannered and is the polar opposite of some anarchist prone to biffing cops at punk shows. He sports a close-cropped postpunk 'do; a line of silver loop earrings travel down his right ear. He doesn't look like your garden-variety radical. Olson more closely resembles a well-mothered bard who spouts bad Ferlinghetti at strip-mall coffee houses. He's a computer programmer at Arizona State University and a teacher of philosophy at Glendale Community College. He has a master's degree in political science.
As an ASU undergrad in the early 1990s, Olson was involved in local punk-rock scenes. He ran his own 'zine and a record label. Olson was also constructing a résumé as a social activist. Aside from contributing to anarchist publications like Blast and Love & Rage, he co-edits a bimonthly newsletter for self-made radicals called The New Abolitionist, a magazine whose catch phrase is "Abolish the White Race -- by Any Means Necessary."
The writings of Black Panthers Bobby Seale and the late Huey Newton provide incentive, inspiration and purpose. The Black Panther Party itself got its start by cop-watching when Newton and his followers patrolled the streets of Oakland in the late 1960s. In the event Newton was pulled over by a cop -- and he often was -- Newton could use the rhetoric of the law against the officers. By asserting his legal rights, he stripped much power that racist cops held.
Olson made news this year by opposing a new ASU course called "Exploring our White/Euro American Roots" on the grounds that it was brazenly racist. The course is not available to ASU students next semester.
Olson studies black history. He cites W.E.B. Du Bois' 1903 Afro-American classic Souls of Black Folk as a major influence. Marx was on Olson's bedside table as well.
"I think in this society, being defined as white gives you a lot of advantages," he says in his calm drone. "It makes it easier to get a loan, it makes it easier to get in the school of your choice, it makes it easier to get a job, and, it usually means you are going to get nicer treatment by the cops."
As ivory as an Irish Swede can be, Olson considers race more a function of power and privilege than one of biology or culture. Too confident to be called a self-hater, he says white privilege allows him to demand reform.
"Whiteness is not a form of power that I like to associate with, and I'm willing to throw myself in situations that other people probably shouldn't because I am confident that the cops will treat me in a different way than they'll treat other people," Olson says.
"I am able to use this whiteness. . . . Historically, the key obstacle in preventing any kind of movement for a better society has been white supremacy, and so I looked to movements that fought against it. And not just to end racism. I think in those struggles lies a vision for a totally new kind of democracy. A more radical democracy."
Such police practices as "racial profiling" and traffic stops for "driving while black" are manifestations of the institutionalized racism in police departments, Copwatch believes. Profiling, employed as a gauge of potentially illegal behavior, is not uncommon across the country. While most departments deny that race is one of the characteristics they use; studies in New Jersey, Maryland and elsewhere allege otherwise. Debate over racial profiling flared in April when state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike wounded two blacks and a Hispanic who where riding in a van that had been pulled over for speeding. The incident caught Washington's attention.
Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt, who is black, agrees that racial profiling is a problem because "we hire human beings."
"From a realistic standpoint," Hurtt says, "I think we all would have policies or practices against racial profiling. And we do know, as with any organization, that we are going to have employees with their own personal vices [who] do not follow those polices. I think on a national basis there is an issue that very much concerns major city police chiefs. . . .
"I think for any police chief to say that 'None of my officers have ever or never will [employ profiling],' I think that's a police chief [who] is not really aware of what's going on in America."
Hurtt, who recently was asked to join a national committee that is studying racial profiling, says his department is drafting a policy that would outlaw racial profiling in Phoenix and require officers to stop suspects "based upon suspicion of probable cause or for an investigation."
"I would say that it is our policy not to practice that [racial profiling]," says Hurtt. "Would we guarantee that it would never occur? No we would not. But we certainly have the expectation of our officers that they will not do it."
Olson believes Hurtt is sincere and is "probably a better police chief" than his recent predecessors.
"My criticism is of the role the chief and the police play," Olson says. "The person who wears the uniform is, to me, less important than the role that they as cops play in this society. And the role of the cop hasn't changed from the old days in which it was a way to keep the rich side of town clean and safe for the rich while containing all the crime and rabble on the poor side of town. . . .
"Basically since the Watts riots in '65, police forces around the country were faced with a choice -- either we control these inner-city neighborhoods with tanks and guns like they are doing in South Africa or we have to come with a new model of policing because the overt model of open power just isn't working.
"I'm not into attacking Hurtt personally. I'm into saying that the role the police play, even black policemen, is to enforce the color line. Keep the Biltmore the Biltmore and keep South Phoenix South Phoenix. Whether it's in Oakland or Philadelphia or Portland or where ever."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Cradling a video camera in his hands, Lockrem sidles up to the scene and starts taping. It's too dark to get badge numbers, but the squad car number is entered with detailed notes about the call, time, location and description. The group informs a cop who it is and its purpose. With a few slight nods and bored blinks, the cops acknowledge they are being observed and taped. They ask the Latinos a few more questions, take some notes and radio in. Minutes later, the cops are back in their squad car and moving up the street.
The group hands out a few bust cards and answers a couple of questions. Then they climb back into the rental and dial in the scanner.
"This how it goes most of the time," says Lockrem resolutely, like the words are weighed down. "But we're not in it for the action."
Contact Brian Smith at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.