How to Put Together a Community Cop-watch Program

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After again seeing the importance of video evidence in the recent police killing of Walter Scott I was reminded that close to 18 years ago I participated in developing a community cop-watch program in Brooklyn with a grassroots organization I was a part of. At that time we helped reintroduce the tactic of cop-watches into community organizing. Loosely based on the Black Panther Party community patrols, this time with cameras not guns, we worked closely with a group named the Black Panther Collective that was active in Harlem conducting community cop-watches. In our group sista Latanya (last name withheld because she has a real job now) led the project at its inception and many of us played important roles. The cop-watch program we put together was extensive and its primary purpose was to prevent police abuse by being visible presence during police stops.

Although cop-watches (individual or structured) are not cure all’s too bad policing any more than body cameras, both are tools that give a greater opportunity to reveal what frequently happens in encounters between the community and police. Much like the panther free breakfast programs, community cop-watches (particularly those made up of people who live in the communities they attempt to patrol) can help support and direct larger societal changes. By themselves they protect a limited amount of people, but they open up the possibilities of more community control and force larger governmental institutions to respond to the injustices of police violence.

Below I offer a variation of the original handbook we created for those interested in a structured community cop-watch against police violence (with some commentary in italics/bold). In addition below are additional resources that include extensive manuals on starting cop-watches and organizations/individuals (including myself) that conduct trainings on how to create a structured cop-watch.

Additional resources and manuals on starting a cop-watch

Narrative description of MXGM cop-watch

Cop-watch NYC prep. document

Berkeley Cop-watch handbook

United Against Police Terror training manual

Goals/Community Demands

(Below are the original public demands of our cop-watch developed in the late 90’s)

People in the Central Brooklyn community are routinely stopped, searched, and detained without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. We believe that community control is one solution to this problem. The Cop Watch program proactively organizes our community to demand control over an institution that is critical to our survival. The program promotes a Five Point Program to Stop Police Brutality. These points were developed though community surveys.

  1. Community control over police – The community must control and operate any institution that holds the power of life and death over it. Democratically elected community police boards must be developed with the power to hire, fire, discipline, and promote.
  2. End the 48 hour rule and the option to a trial by judge – Police officers accused of brutality and murder are given 2 days to “get their stories straight” and are not required to give any information about the incident. Additionally, police officers avoid being tried by a jury that reflects the communities they police.
  3. A “REAL” Civilian Complaint Review Board – An independent CCRB should be established with the power to subpoena and indict.
  4. An independent prosecutor for police brutality cases – District Attorneys work directly with the police on a daily bases. They rely heavily on one another to indict, prosecute, and try cases. They function as one institution and to have a local DA prosecute police is a conflict of interest.
  5. Disband the Street Crimes Unit, Operation Condor, and all “COINTELPRO” type policing programs!


(Below are additional and differently worded similar demands to the above that can also be made when organizing cop-watches to reform police practices)

  • The Department of Justice must fully investigate and bring civil rights charges when applicable against officers that have broken the public and community’s trust. Only through a justice system that recognizes that “black lives matter” can we achieve even a sense of fundamental balance and institutional fairness.
  • Individual states, through the Governor’s office and/or through state assembly, must appoint special state prosecutors who can fairly judge these matters without the burden of institutional relationships with the police. A special prosecutor who does not rely on the police for information and witnesses in other cases has less of burden to side with the police and have grand jury’s that are operated to vindicate the police version of events
  • Local police departments and the department of defense must end the insidious supply of military grade equipment and weapons for use in local policing. The more pervasive this weaponry is and the more widespread the training in its uses, the easier it is for police to look upon community members as enemy combatants. Police officers refereeing to the public as “civilians” is one illustration of how this military mindset is evident in into local police vocabulary. In order to hold police accountable, we must know more about our local police departments, their policies and procedures, complaints against them and the level of military grade weaponry they possess.
  • Civilian review boards must be strengthened with the power to subpoena officers and compel testimony; to complete independent investigations and offer findings; to hold fair and impartial administrative trials; and to enact penalties independent of police department/chief review. These boards should be completely independent from the police department with board members appointed by city councils, mayors and/ or a direct vote.
  • Independent monitoring of public police behavior must be employed. The technology of dash and body cameras should be implemented to give an extra layer of safeguard to the community that the police interact with. These videotapes can help make officers more aware and reserved in their behavior and can provide important evidence and indicate need for future training in proper police protocols and conduct.
  • Community Police Boards must be created where members of the community can serve and play a significant role in reviewing complaints and making recommendations for how policing should be done in their communities. Re-imagining the relationship between the police and the community is an important step in moving forward. The community must feel empowered to direct police actions as opposed to having police feel no accountability to the communities they serve. Creating a more horizontal police structure de-militarizes the structure and brings the community directly involved in how policing should be done in their/our communities where broken relationships and flawed policies too often result in the feeding of mostly black and brown youth into the prison pipeline.
  • Legislators must prioritize spending on building relationships between people, and allowing more communities to lead themselves. This means more diversity and more training in many police departments; more community policing and civilian review boards. By reducing military spending by even a small percentage, resources could be supplied that build not only more accountability but also peaceful and better-resourced communities.
  • End the Broken Windows program and the profit motive in the criminal justice system. Recent events have shown that targeting people for ticketing either in the street or in vehicles does not bring down crime, but adds to the frustration of people feeling over-policed and harassed. Cities and counties should not be taxing the community through tickets, court fines and fees to keep a bloated criminal justice and mass incarceration system operating.

Program Objectives

(Below is an edited version of the original objectives of the cop-watch that later morphed into the “Peoples Self-defense Campaign” that then included legal support on individual cases of police misconduct and organizing on individual cases)

Prevention – Cop Watch volunteers promote community-developed demands while engaging in the community patrols. The volunteers are trained in “police abuse prevention” learning techniques to safely intervene in incidents of apparent brutality and misconduct. These techniques include the right to observe officers making an arrest from a reasonable distance, informing the arrestee of their rights, questioning the officers about the incident and their use of force, interviewing witnesses on the scene, and encouraging others to stop and take notice.

Education – The education component of this program is carried out through our on-going Know Your Rights Workshops and during cop-watches. The workshop covers participants current understanding of their rights, explains in detail the arrest, detainment, and incarceration procedures. The session encourages the community to legally bare witness to police actions from a reasonable distance.

Documentation – The documentation component consists of video monitoring of police stop and frisk as well as arrest throughout Central Brooklyn. This documentation will be used to highlight and bring further awareness to the high incidents of police misconduct in Central Brooklyn.

Equipment Required

2 Camcorders
3 Walkie-Talkies/Cell Phones
3 Tape Recorder
100 Know Your Rights Pamphlets
1 Police Scanner
2 Copies of Police Patrol Guide
1 Mic Transmitter
1 35mm Camera (optional)
2 Binoculars
6 Whistles (optional)

Team Descriptions & Duties

Team Alpha is the primary team. They are the first level of engagement. This team will be the first on the scene and will determine if further involvement in police activity is necessary. Once they decide to activate Cop Watch, all eyes are on them.

Team Omega is the secondary team. They are “back-up” for team one and will capture footage from a distance.

Base checks in with teams, monitors scanner and is in contact with lawyer on call

Team Member Criteria – Persons participating in teams must:

    • Be a member of the organization (except legal panel)
    • Be 18 years or older
    • Have no outstanding warrants in the United States or abroad
    • If convicted of a crime, have completed sentence, parole or probation
    • Be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident
    • Have 20/20 vision or wear corrective lenses

Team Member Equipment & Duties    

Team Alpha 

Team Member 1

  • Equipment: Camcorder
  • Duties: Direct filming of agreed upon police encounters. Team member 1 must know “conflict resolution” statement verbatim and be trained in such

Team Member 2

  • Equipment: Mic Transmitter, Tape Recorder, Political Education Materials
  • Duties: Disseminate Know Your Rights brochures and insure that Team Member 1  filming is not interrupted. Member 2 is most likely to engage the police in confrontation. Therefore it is necessary for 2 to be well versed in search and seizure laws, and guidelines and laws pertaining to police practices and procedures, amongst other things. 2 should be able to articulate to the police and public the goals of the Cop Watch Program. 2 should also have the temperament and skill to verbally diffuse hostile situations.

Team Member 3

  • Duties: Maintain constant communication with Teams Omega and Base. Watch and listen intently to the interaction between Member 2 and the police. Carefully determine the level of the police interaction and be prepared to notify Team Omega to begin deployment and/or to notify base to initiate the rapid response network and deploy legal assistance.

Team Member 4

  • Equipment: Valid Driver’s License with no outstanding infractions
  • Duties: Operate the vehicle, which will contain Team Alpha. Member 4 will insure that the vehicle is secured and in close proximity of the encounter site at all times. 4 should also be well versed in the target area.           

Team Omega

Team Member 5

  • Equipment: Camcorder, and extra battery
  • Duties: Film Team One and interaction with police. 5 must know confrontation statement verbatim. He/she should also be skilled in conflict resolution.

Team Member 6

  • Equipment: Walkie Talkie, Political Education Material, Binoculars
  • Duties: Disseminate brochures and insure that team member 5 filming is not interrupted. Team Member 6 is likely to engage the police in confrontation. If necessary, he/she will “back-up” Member 2 and/or replace 2 if he/she is arrested. Therefore, it is necessary for 6 to be well versed in search and seizure laws, and guidelines and laws pertaining to police practices and procedures, amongst other things. F should be able to articulate to the police and public the goals of the Cop Watch Program. 6 should also have the temperament and skill to verbally diffuse hostile situations. While in the vehicle, 6 is responsible for communicating via walkie-talkie with base.

Team Member 7

  • Equipment: Valid Driver’s License with no outstanding infractions
  • Duties: Operate the vehicle, which will contain Team Omega. Team Member 7 will insure that the vehicle is secured and in close proximity of the encounter site at all times. Team member 7 should also be well versed in the target area.



Team Member 8

  • Equipment: Scanner, Walkie-Talkie, Telephone, Rapid Response List, Media List
  • Duties: Monitor the police scanner and relay information to various teams and deploy legal support and rapid responsenetwork.  Specifically, legal team members will do the following: 

Legal Panel

  1. Training patrol team members on relevant aspects of the law to prepare them to handle certain scenarios/confrontations
  2. Be on-call during patrols and prepared to respond to emergencies, travel to precincts and incident sites, and provide legal representation
  3. Provide legal expertise on the development and implementation of the Cop Watch Program and occasionally may be called upon to answer questions and provide additional training.
  4. Participate/Volunteer every other month in Know Your Rights Workshop.
  5. Regularly accept Police Misconduct Cases referred to her/him


Deployment Agreement

(protocol is established l to make sure everyone participating is on the same page. If disputes arise outside of agreed protocol they are to be settled later and the original agreement is to be honored for everyone’s safety.)

  • There must be a consensus from team members to respond to incident
  • Team member 2 only addresses the crowd as a group. He/she does not get into individual discussions while incident is occurring.
  • Team member 2 does not address the police unless spoken to. Then, he/she can respond.
  • If the cops tell us to leave, we would state that we have the right to be there.
  • If the cops demand that we step back, we do so but refuse to leave because we have a right to be there.
  • If the cops tell us to stop filming, we refuse to because we have the right to film.
  • If a cop draws his gun and demands we put the camera down, we comply.
  • If a cop pulls his nightstick and demands cameras be put down, we step back and assess the situation and make a further judgment.
  • If members are threatened with arrest, they refuse step back and explain that our have a right to be there and to film.
  • If a team member is arrested, the member does not resist and all team move into rapid response mode.
  • If cops are beating someone we determine a means for distraction, while at the same time, attracting the attention of the community.
About Community Movement Builders (159 Articles)
Community Movement Builders (CMB) is a member-based collective of black people dedicated to being a force for creating sustainable self-determining communities through cooperative economic advancement and collective community organizing. Our mission is rooted in Black love and equity. Grassroots Thinking is our newsletter/community blog about our work and movement activity

2 Comments on How to Put Together a Community Cop-watch Program

  1. live video protection // April 9, 2018 at 3:49 pm // Reply

    We are seeking to work with local organizations in protecting peoples civil rights and to assist in stopping police abuse, harassment and intimidation. Our systems have a proven track record of stopping such abuse and makes all people in position of power rethink their actions for our systems have the ability to instantly expose any and all illegal actions they may do as well as have admissible evidence in any court of law. We seek to partner with local organizations to promote and provide these systems. We are open to a mutual benefiting relationship that promotes and sells this proven system. We look forward to speaking with you and working together. Livevideoprotection

  2. I was batter by a cop in the station ..and in now day I would like to start a chapter in my community can any one walk me threw how to sign up by direction or name is olanda K Jones. 318-794-9644. Thank you

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