Film: Cop Watch: Documenting use of police force in NYC

Produced by Joanna Suarez & Darwin Phillips
Wed, 12/24/2014

With cell phones and security cameras able capture our every move it seems like we are always being watched. The same goes for police: dash cams and body cameras record their daily interactions with the community. It’s something we are used to, but not the cops. 

“While the police department loves to videotape the rest of us, they don’t necessarily love being videotaped themselves,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

But that hasn’t stopped the New York City community group “Cop Watch” from monitoring police activity on the weekends. The eight teams are embedded in neighborhoods, from Brooklyn to Jackson Heights, and one of the most diverse communities in Queens.

“You have the right to film police activity and doing so can bring us closer to a just and safe New York City,” Yul-san Liem, one of the members of the Cop Watch team in Jackson Heights, told a group of community members during an evening training on ‘Know Your Rights.’ Yul-san, who is also with the Justice Committee, told the class there was an “epidemic of police brutality” that needs to end.

Eric Garner’s death in July at the hands of NYPD was the turning point for these activists. Garner was killed after being placed in a chokehold by a plainclothes police officer.

“Had Eric Garner’s tragic, tragic killing not been captured on video you know the discourse would be very, very different today,” Lieberman, with NYACLU, said.

So far this year there have been nearly 13,000 allegations made against the NYPD, for everything from offensive language to abuse of power, according to the latest data available from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that looks into complaints about alleged police misconduct.

Police commissioner William Bratton has called for more training for officers and promised to weed out the bad cops. Still, more videos showing police using excessive force continue to surface. Messages left by Fusion Live with the NYPD were not returned.

“For us, it’s not a question of good or bad cops. It’s about recognizing that there is an institutional problem,” Yul-san said after patroLling the streets with the Cop Watch team in Jackson Heights. “No one thinks Cop Watch is going to solve everything, but it’s one piece of a much larger strategy.”