Watchdog groups training citizens to join Cop Watch movement by catching rogue police in action

Ben Kochman
New York Daily News
Wed, 10/01/2014

Police, you’re being policed.

City watchdog groups are recruiting intrepid citizens in all five boroughs — and arming some of them with handheld video cameras — to catch rogue cops in action.

“The reality is that the police violate the law,” said Daniel Sanchez, a 33-year-old member of the Justice Committee, one of the groups of activists aimed at stopping police violence.

“But when we are there with our cameras, the cops often change their behavior,” he said.

Dozens of would-be shutterbugs packed a meeting in the Bronx on Tuesday to learn the nuts and bolts of documenting potential abuses.

The workshop in Morrisania was the first in a series planned for every borough.

“Do not engage the officers unless they engage you,” said Yul-san Liem, a Justice Committee trainer, who advised cop watchers to keep their distance and remain calm. “The point is not to antagonize police.”

Momentum for filming NYPD interactions with the public spiked after video played a significant role in shaping reaction to the death of Eric Garner of Staten Island, who died in July after a cop placed him in a chokehold.

“A picture may be worth a thousand words, but if it happened on video, it’s priceless,” said New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman.

“If a person had only described what had happened to Eric Garner, it wouldn’t have had nearly the impact that it did,” she added.

An NYPD officer was also caught on a disturbing video in September tackling a clearly pregnant woman in Brooklyn.

The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how a fleet of videographers would affect their ability to police the streets.

But department brass has taken notice of citizens’ First Amendment right to film police.

All police commands were reminded in August that they cannot legally stop someone from filming them, unless the person operating the camera “interferes with police operations,” according to an internal memo obtained by the Daily News.

Organizers from the Justice Committee, which led the Bronx training session, said they already have about 20 volunteers.

Equipped with smartphones or small video cameras, they hit the streets in teams, using their instincts to determine which police-civilian interactions to tape.

Cop watchers are told to note the date, time and location of any encounter — and to seek permission from the filmed civilian before posting the video online.

Organizers, trying to beef up their citywide network, have planned workshops in Manhattan and Queens this month.

“We’d like to have a fleet out there every night,” Sanchez said. “But first we need the numbers.”

Meeting attendees said they’d have no shortage of incidents to film. Police-community interaction is often testy in one of the city’s highest crime areas.

“In this community, we are all just a person waiting to be arrested,” said Tim Fowler, 56, who lives in the Mott Haven Houses.