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A Guide to Copwatching

When it comes to cops, a camera could save your life.

Illustrations by Berkeley Poole

In the grim light of Eric Garner’s death, Michael Brown’s death, and the ensuing protests in Ferguson, New York City, and other cities across America, we at ADULT, the independent magazine I edit, have decided to publish online one of our first print issue’s more memorable pieces: Katie J.M. Baker’s guide to sousveillance, or copwatching. Although memorable seems like the wrong word, the kinds of events that impelled her to write the article never seem to stop happening long enough for her guide to be forgotten.


Baker became interested in sousveillance when she interviewed a sex worker named Raven, who called herself the “coparazzi,” for Jezebel. Many of Raven's 100-plus videos on YouTube were interviews with teenage sex workers describing their abuse at the hands of the LAPD, while others featured cops either hassling Raven or refusing to help her deal with a hassling client.

“The minute you mention sex work in the context of a real crime, cops don't want to hear it,” Raven told Baker at the time. "They'll blame you for whatever happened to you.”

While working with Baker on this guide, we watched a jury in Florida acquit George Zimmerman of killing Trayvon Martin, 17, in the gated community where Martin was living. We watched as a judge in the Bronx dismissed the manslaughter charges against Richard Haste, the white NYPD officer who shot Ramarley Graham, 18, in Graham's home. Had we also been able to watch both of the boys’ deaths on video, would the courts have decided differently?

Nearly a year later, we’re witnessing a rise in awareness of police brutality, thanks in large part to smartphone-armed citizens. Without the video recording of Darren Wilson standing over Michael Brown’s body, #Ferguson may have stopped trending, and without the video recording of Eric Garner's killing, citizens may never have protested in Times Square, sparking a US media scrum.

“If the marginalised community members I interviewed for my guide in ADULT don't watch the cops,” says Baker, “who will?”


Marginalised or not, we should be prepared to police the police. That's why ADULT is making Baker’s article, which we previously, stupidly printed in a $20 niche erotic magazine, available on VICE. We want this material to be used. What follows is a web-friendly version of “Watch Yourself!” which was originally fashioned as a four-page primer in the black-and-white tone of a Cold War-era Civil Defense brochure.

The irony could not be more pointed: When the US government’s public alert “CAN AMERICANS TAKE IT?” hyperbolically warned “regular Americans” that, in a nuclear age, “the backyard may be the next front line,” it wasn't referring to the risk of abuse, illegal arrest, or state-sanctioned murder that many black Americans, transgender Americans, homeless Americans, sex-working Americans, and many other Americans face today. Nor did the US government mean to predict a militarised homeland police force, storming the cul-de-sacs in camouflage and all-terrain vehicles. In a strange, accidental way, the government did warn us, and there is no hyperbole sufficient for the danger of the current situation.

In the US, constant WATCHEDNESS IS THE NEW WAY OF LIFE. A cop may, without a warrant, not only stop but also frisk you. An armed and xenophobic vigilante may shoot you as you walk home.  Patriots – BE ALERT! BE READY! AND BE READY TO PRESS RECORD!

In times of crisis, the only antidote to watchedness is SOUSVEILLANCE: When the many (YOU!) watch the few (COPS!). This guide takes into account tips from the “many” – from Occupy protestors to sex workers to teenagers of colour – on how to hold YOUR STATE accountable. Social networking has turned recent large-scale disappointment in the criminal justice system into a critical mass of angry, skeptical US citizens. Too often, we wait for a Trayvon Martin or an Oscar Grant before we prepare. But copwatchers can take practical, direct action to deter police terrorism. Here’s what you need to know before you copwatch.



A US citizen must be historically informed in order to copwatch. This practice has existed in the US as far back as the 1850s, when fugitive black Americans made their own WANTED posters, urging fellow slaves to keep their “TOP EYE open” for slave-catchers. When slavery was abolished, the slaves did not become free. In 1991, members of the Los Angeles Police Department were caught, on tape, beating Rodney King. Were it not for the sousveillance, the cops might still be cops. But, thanks to video that pushed racist cop assaults into the spotlight, they became prisoners. Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million ($2.3m) in civil damages.

Sousveillance, however, is rarely but a Pyrrhic success. We would not know what had happened to Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station, in 2009, had so many bystanding citizens not been armed with cameras. Yet the US compatriot Oscar Grant still died. Last year, one LA sex worker named Raven Nicole Masterson uploaded over 100 videos, filmed using her smartphone camera, that document dozens of legal arguments with cops and interviews with teenage sex workers claiming cop abuse, and yet THE FIGHT IS NOT OVER. There is always a fear that cops may become smarter, or even sentient.

If you know the tools, you can subvert them. Many of these tools can, and should, be carried in your pockets – and not only in America, but everywhere an American goes. In the 2011 London riots, protestors used a smartphone app called Sukey to report and share police activities that were anti-protest so they could be everywhere the police weren’t, thus turning the state’s gaze and tactics on its head. On a global scale, the infamous, patriot act of WikiLeaks is an example of technology-enabled sousveillance. Yet, for citizens of America, sousveillance begins at home.


PASSWORD. Whether it’s a smartphone, a laptop, or a regular camera, a copwatcher must always have a password and, if possible, a screen-lock timer on the device. PLAN FOR THE WORST. A cop may demand to see what is on your device, so do not make it easy.

ENCRYPTION. From default, some smartphones encrypt the information stored on the devices, but others do not. If you do not ensure your information is encrypted, the police can and may connect a special device to your phone that will copy all its data. First, you want to make sure they cannot delete anything. Secondly, you want to stop them from seeing it in the first place. Citizens, enable encryption. (Even with encryption, a cop can still download your data if he possesses the actual, physical device. But, as the Supreme Court ruled in Riley vs. California this past June, police need to get a specific warrant to do so, even if they've already arrested you. This is one more right for you to know.)

BACKUP. If the only copy of the video or the photograph is on the device, and then if something unforeseen happens to that device, you lose the photo. Use a service that automatically loads your new video to the web. This does not mean it needs to be available for everyone else to see, but merely that if it’s automatically backed up, you have an alternate way of accessing it if your phone is stolen, smashed, or compromised.

Whenever it is possible, citizens, prepare in groups and copwatch in your group’s own neighbourhood. Copwatching is about community. You must want to change your own conditions and you must be held accountable. If you go into another community, the police might retaliate against people in that neighbourhood. DO NOT overstep the boundaries of your experience (if, for example, your community comprises well-intentioned middle-class white kids with smartphones). REMEMBER: The more support you have from people in the community, the harder it is for the police to isolate you.


Copwatching is confrontational. The police in the US are not yet accustomed to having citizens observe them, so they might quickly move to their own defense.

Pay attention to detail, because the cops will. For example: Park a couple of blocks away. You don’t want your car to get targeted so you can get stopped later. Don’t do anything illegal, even if it seems minor; do not, Americans, allow yourself to be arrested for spitting on a sidewalk.

And, remember: How “arrestable” are you? Don’t copwatch unless you can get arrested. If you’re a sex worker or someone traditionally targeted by law enforcement population, who is working and surviving in a street economy, it may be a risky decision.

The police may try to intimidate you, so it is crucial that, as an American, you know your rights.

Recording laws differ state by state – for example, in some states you can’t record someone without their knowledge (but you can without their consent) – so call the ACLU or visit their website before copwatching.

At least two federal courts of appeals have recognised the right to record on-duty cops on the basis of first amendment right violations. Still today, cops know they can intimidate people, and they might tell you to stop, ask for your camera, or otherwise illegally scare you.

Always say, “am I free to go or am I being detained?” You do not have to talk to the cop or even stick around unless the cop says so and has a reasonable suspicion to detain you; they cannot just say you look like “you’re not from around the area.” Question their purpose and scope. You do NOT have to consent to a search of your pockets or badge, and you do NOT have to provide anything other than your name, your identification, and your address.


IF you are planning on copwatching, it will be helpful to reference specific codes, such as California State Penal Code Section 830.10, which says that cops must give you their name or wear a badge. California State Penal Code Section 841 informs citizens “the person making the arrest must, on request of the person he [or she] is arresting, inform the latter of the offense for which he [or she] is being arrested.”

Copwatchers may be charged with resisting or obstructing an officer. California State Penal Code Section 148.a states that “Every person who willfully resists, delays, or obstructs any public officer… in the discharge or attempt to discharge” of his or her duty will be arrested. REMEMBER, you have the right to observe as long as you’re not interfering. Catching your non-interference on camera will make that clear.

Ask the cops for their names and their badge numbers, and write that information down. Local copwatch organisations can often give you a fuller list of rights. Memorise them, Americans, and DO NOT FORGET.

Dr. Simone Brown at the University of Texas, who specialises in surveillance; Joaquin Cienfuegos, a member of the Guerrilla Chapter of Cop Watch Los Angeles; Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project; Kahn Miller, executive director of project SAFE; Chris Soghoian, ACLU principal technologist with the speech privacy and technology project; Steve Mann’s article “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments.”


ADULT's second issue goes on sale next month. For more information, visit their website

Follow Katie and Sarah on Twitter. 

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