On Patrol with the Copwatchers Who Film the NYPD
El Grito de Sunset Park—a local police watchdog group—started in 2002, when the country's videos of law enforcement were mostly limited to Rodney King and the show 'COPS.'
All photos by Jason Bergman
"This is the first place I was ever beaten by the cops," Dennis Flores, 40, points out, as we pass 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood. "They were filming a Steven Seagal movie, and I was like 13 years old."
Flores impersonates a chokehold, pushing his thumb against his Adam's apple, and starts to fake gag. "I guess I got too close," he says, smiling.
It's a steamy Thursday evening, and Fifth Avenue is bustling with kids lining up to buy empanadas, older Latina women selling chicharrón and tostones, and people entering taquerias and carnicerias left and right. The smell of carnitas is in the air as dinner time approaches.
Flores, a Sunset Park native of Puerto Rican descent, strolls down the street like he owns it, shaking hands and saying hello to everyone—but it's a walk that's also replete with dark memories.
At 46th and Fifth, when we first meet, Flores immediately begins telling a story.
"In 2003, a grandmother was beaten here and stripped in front of her entire family by the police for allegedly talking back to them," he explains, showing me a photo on his phone from the night of a half-naked older woman being thrown into the back of a police van, screaming. "It was humiliating." (The family involved later received a $500,000 settlement from the city, according to Flores.)
Then, down the block, at 47th and Fifth: "Last year, a family of Mexican street vendors were arrested and kicked in the back here. There was a huge crowd of people," Flores said, waving his hand to show the size. "But one of the cops who said the other cop was attacked first was lying. He couldn't have seen it." He pulls out his iPhone, and starts to replay the video from that September evening. In it, the officer clearly hits first. Flores smiles again. "Because we got him."
This is the work of Flores's organization, El Grito de Sunset Park—a local police watchdog group he started with a couple of friends in 2002, when the country's videos of law enforcement were mostly limited to Rodney King and the show COPS. This was long before "copwatch," or the act of filming the police, seeped into the national discussion about criminal justice and people of color, one ignited by the videos of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and more.
At the time, the group met once a year to film the sometimes brutal police response to the Puerto Rican Day Parade in June, which has a tendency to spill out onto Brooklyn's Fifth Avenue once it ends over in Manhattan. But since then, El Grito has morphed into a year-round operation, with Flores functioning as the veteran-in-arms: After all, he's been filming the police since 1995.
The work has taken Flores to Chicago and the Oaxaca region of Mexico (where he says he was deported by local officials), his YouTube account doubling as an archive. He claims he's faced plenty of blowback, like destroyed cameras and attacks by cops, with successful settlements helping to pay for more equipment. He treats the activity like a martial arts sensei—one that requires serious discipline and focus, in light of recent crackdowns. "We don't want to be Ramsey Orta," he added, a reference to the man who shot the video of Eric Garner and was later arrested on gun charges, which, some argue, were cooked up by police.
Once or twice a week, a squad hits the streets of Sunset Park, backpacks filled with digital cameras and iPhones, ready to shoot any police activity they might encounter. If anything relevant is captured, the video is soon pitched to local media outlets for coverage ("The New York Post calls me every week for something," Flores claims). If there are no bites, the stuff gets uploaded to the group's Facebook page with the hope that it'll go viral, and the right people will see it.
And, in the Mexican street vendors' case, that happened: The video helped unravel police claims in court, the charges were eventually dropped, and the relevant cops were subsequently suspended. In other words: El Grito won.
A few days after we first met, photographer Jason Bergman and I rejoined Flores and two others members of El Grito for an early night copwatch. It was a Monday, so the streets were quieter than usual; the busiest, they told me, is the weekend, when patrol units station themselves along Fifth Avenue. A normal Saturday night, another El Grito member named Claudio Gaeta Tapia told me, has Flores's phone abuzz with people calling in to report videos they've captured. A recent, more notorious, example is that of Sandra Amezquita, a pregnant woman who thrown to the ground by police after questioning the arrest of her son.
"If I we don't do it, a friend of a friend got it," Tapia noted. "It's constant. We have eyes everywhere."
As we made our way up and down Fifth Avenue, an inventory of cameras in hand, Tapia, 47, told me he has been part of El Grito for two years now, after he and Flores first met in Chicago back in '07. He lives in the nearby neighborhood of Crown Heights, but travels down here to Copwatch when he can.
On the corner of 50th and Fifth, a group of teenagers greeted Flores and his company, un-phased by our procession. Copwatch in a community of color in New York City is nothing new, though around here it feels like a more populist—and aggressive—DIY alternative to the urban liberalism on offer from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has sought piecemeal reforms rather than systematic ones, much to the chagrin of his progressive allies.
"If there's no real solidarity—none of this white savior shit, none of this charity—how will things change?" Tapia asked me. "It's a collective voice, made up of community members' stories, that becomes bigger than the individual parts."
For the crew, El Grito is a Brooklyn version, or counterpart, to leftist movements in Latin America, fighting what many consider to be systems of oppression. One member, Jason Del Aguila, said his experiences in Guatemala and El Salvador helped train him for New York, where the imperialist oppressor, he said, is the NYPD, backed and enhanced by what he sees as a shell of political power, starting first with local officials and making its way all the way up to City Hall. The name itself derives from the El Grito de Lares, a major Puerto Rican uprising in 1868 against Spanish colonial rule.
"The word Grito means 'Cry,' like a war cry," he added, tapping his camera. "This is ours."
The group carries this anti-colonial tone reminiscent of the Zapatistas in Mexico, or the Contra in Nicaragua—that this is essentially a struggle for independence from the persecution of the boys in blue. But, of course, there's a modern twist: the iPhone, and the camera that comes with it. "This is our evidence, our story," Tapia explained. "And being able to tell our story... that's liberty."
This was the motivation behind a cultural center set up by El Grito at a local church three years ago, which taught Hispanic history classes and "Know Your Right" seminars to the youth. It even taught copwatch. But the center was quickly closed. "Imagine if all of those teenagers on the corner had cameras?" Tapia offered. (Since then, Flores has moved the classroom to the street, projecting videos onto local businesses who allow it.)
The sun had almost fully set, and we had only seen an undercover unit so far. Flores, who always suspects a cop is near, advised that we hop in his car and patrol the block so we were less conspicuous. To cover their tracks, the members switch up copwatch days so the authorities can't detect a pattern. After a night's watch, they even walk back home in teams, so no one is followed by a police cruiser. This, they said, is for their own protection.
But these days, Flores strongly believes the cops are hiding from El Grito. This year, there was no fines or arrests at a Puerto Rican Day event that he helped organize, Flores told me, and the avenue was outfitted with traditional boricua music playing from speakers and bongos, which has drawn the attention of the police in the past. So the crew has been forced to weigh their own influence. "That's what it should be like! That's what we should expect," Tapia exclaimed. "They know we're out here. They know we're not backing down."
Before we took off, Flores pointed out an unwieldy NYPD camera installed at the top of a pole. A few of them lined Fifth Avenue, where we had been walking. Over his 20 years of experience, Flores has become a master of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, although, most of the time, his pleas go unanswered. But the first night we met, Flores mentioned a lawsuit that he planned on filing against the city for negligence, in which key footage from those cameras was allegedly "lost" by police. Tonight he was happy—the notice had been filed. "I got it in just before the courts closed," he said.
The case was that of Enrique Del Rosario, a 17-year-old who was beaten by police at last year's Puerto Rican Day Parade as he filmed the march. As usual, El Grito challenged the cops' narrative with multiple videos, and the charges were dismissed. But instead of wasting ten months in court, the city could've checked their own footage—that's what the cameras are for, right?—and dismissed the charges much sooner, Flores argued in the notice, which he shared with me later.
As we sped towards Eighth Avenue, a staunchly Asian-American part of the neighborhood, where, members say, there is less of a police presence, I spoke with Del Aguila, a 33-year-old Queens native and longtime member of El Grito. He explained that last year's Puerto Rican Day Parade in Sunset Park was a turning point for the group. "The community realized we had a methodology down," he said. "It felt like a team. We even had moms out with us, after putting their children with their grandparents, ready to film the police."
With his DSLR and fish-eye lens in hand, Del Aguila said he's been swung at and hit with a baton for filming. Although this year's Puerto Rican Day Parade was less abrasive, the day-to-day routine hasn't changed. He still sees a neighborhood struggling under the heavy burden of "broken windows" policing, which targets low-level "quality of life" crimes—a dragnet more apparent in communities of color like Sunset Park. Not surprisingly, at a town hall organized by Flores and other community advocates last October on the issue of police brutality, local residents came out in swarms.
"The cops are still not listening, but telling us what to do," Del Aguila argued. "That's why, when something happens, we need to show that we didn't invent it."
"If you're New York City's finest," he added, "act like it."
In many ways, the history of El Grito de Sunset Park runs parallel to police watchdogs across the country. But they don't need a "more reactionary" case like Eric Garner or Freddie Gray for legitimacy, Flores said. Those firestorms help the cause, sure, but what matters most to the group is happening here—this community and its police, at opposite ends on a busy avenue in Brooklyn.
"I don't expect to change a system that was built this way," Flores told me. "What we're doing is holding up a mirror to America and saying, 'Look, this is what we're going through.'"
Soon enough, a patrol car with no lights on came into sight, and Flores gunned the engine, hoping to keep up. He quickly placed an iPhone on the dashboard, its video rolling. Del Aguila and Tapia focused their cameras forward, as Flores weaved between lanes, repeating the patrol car's every movement. Eventually, the car stopped at the 72nd Precinct—which a film student had been arrested for filming in the past—and two officers got out, staring at us.
"They know we're watching now," Flores said, laughing as he turned off the iPhone video. "And they can't do anything about it."
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