News: Watching the Detectives

CopWatch marks a year of fighting brutality

Aug 8, 2002 at 2:06 pm
A scene from a CopWatch video shows a traffic stop by a Cincinnati Police officer.

For a year now citizen volunteers have kept surveillance on a group that includes members who have killed unarmed men, forced women to have sex and shot beanbags at little girls in broad daylight. The target of the surveillance is Cincinnati Police officers.

The volunteers call themselves Cincinnati CopWatch. Their slogan: "The streets is watchin' "

The streets is also making videotapes, including one — not yet released — that purportedly shows racial profiling in the Main Street entertainment district of Over-the-Rhine.

"CopWatch is holding police accountable," says organizer Gavin Leonard. "It's exercising your right to watch any police action or arrest. If anything comes up, you're there."

The value of citizens monitoring police became clear again last week, when a Hamilton County grand jury indicted Cincinnati Police officers Michael Mercer and Robert Litman on charges of abduction, assault and illegal restraint. The cops got caught only because a man saw them harassing his neighbor and followed them to Mt. Airy Forest.

The incident wasn't caught on videotape, and it didn't involve a CopWatch volunteer.

But the plucky citizen who followed the police did exactly what CopWatch hopes more people will do.

"It's all about practicalness," says Islord Allah, a CopWatch member. "On the streets, we tell people, 'We'll get you a camera. This is your house. The streets is your house.' The more cameras people have, the more that can be captured. The things they do in darkness will be revealed."

Formed after the April 2001 uprising against violence by Cincinnati Police, CopWatch spent its first months educating the public, distributing "Know Your Rights" cards and leaflets.

CopWatch member Dureka Bonds says the response she gets while leafleting reinforces her belief that citizens need a concrete way to protect themselves from police abuses.

"CopWatch is very sorely needed," she says. "It's needed nationwide, but especially in Cincinnati. People will come up to me and say, 'CopWatch! This happened to me today. That didn't seem right, but I didn't have one of those cards on me.' "

The "Know Your Rights" cards, funded by a grant from the Over-the-Rhine Community Council, relay information that seems innocuous: "Never consent to a search ... Do not answer any questions until a lawyer arrives."

But the pocket guides also instruct people on how to protect fellow citizens: "If the police stop anyone, stop and watch ... Write down officers' names and badge numbers ... Get witnesses' names."

That kind of empowerment hardly endears people to cops, as CopWatch members have found out since beginning their surveillance. A videotape recently released by the group as a fund-raiser — The Streets Is Watchin' — shows that officers are less than enamored of having observers demand their badge numbers.

In one scene on the tape, Leonard demands the badge number of an officer making a traffic stop. Instead of giving the information, the officer walks toward Leonard and yells, "Don't interfere with our traffic stops, OK?" The cop is Officer Keith Fangman, vice president of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police.

Allah says he recently happened upon a cop roughing up a suspect, but didn't have a camera with him.

"He tried to get me to leave so he could finish the job off," Allah says.

Life Allah, a CopWatch volunteer, says the tension is real but members are committed to their work.

"We make sure we know our rights and the law," he says. "We know it's coming, some kind of confrontation with the police. We can't control the police. We just want to make sure we keep one step ahead of the police department."

The CopWatch video makes plain the groups' distrust of Cincinnati Police. In one scene, Life Allah discusses the April 2001 shooting death of an unarmed 19-year-old in Over-the-Rhine.

"Timothy Thomas was being chased by some cops, who was out doing the regular, which is harassing folks," Allah says.

The aftermath of that police shooting is what convinced Rodney Beamon, 16, to join CopWatch. Acting as a volunteer videographer for CitiCable during the ensuing protests, Beamon says he saw firsthand the need for monitoring police.

"They had told the community that if they were nonviolent they could march and protest all they want," Beamon says. "But when the police got to a certain point and the crowd was coming down the street, they started shooting beanbags at them. I seen this with my own two eyes."

CopWatch has a grant from the Active Element Foundation for the Digital Storytelling Project, in which Beamon is documenting citizens' recollections of the uprising. But the group's focus isn't on what happened in April 2001, according to Islord Allah.

"Police brutality is going on and is being ignored," he says. "People are living in a state of hopelessness. We're not concentrating on the future. We're not dealing in the past. We're looking at what's happening right now."

CopWatch is getting such a positive response from the community that it's exploring ways to expand its mission, the volunteers say. The group is already organizing a subsidiary, Citizens Organizing Neighborhoods to Regain Our Liberation (CONTROL).

"We're not just about police accountability," Leonard says. "A lot of people only show up when things go wrong. We're working on programs to make things right. We want to start a youth center with innovative programming tied to the experiences of youth in the community. We're an organization that's on the move."

A comprehensive approach to the issues in Over-the-Rhine will further empower residents, Life Allah says.

"People can only swim and do arts and crafts and play basketball for so long," he says. "Some people want to be journalists. We want to give them the experience."

Beamon is one of several Cincinnati volunteers in Oakland, Calif., this week training with that city's CopWatch. The trip will be his first time on an airplane. Meanwhile, Life Allah ponders a form of transportation that will enable CopWatch to keep up with the Cincinnati Police.

"Right now we're on foot," he says. "We need bikes so we're more mobile." ©