QUEENS, N.Y. — On a recent evening in a nondescript apartment building in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, a small group of young social justice activists gather for a weekly ritual.
Armed with handheld video cameras and know-your-rights pamphlets, they hash out a strategy and exchange information about police movements in the area. All write on their arms the phone number of a lawyer who will bail them out of jail if things go awry.
This scene could play out in any number of large cities such as Detroit, St. Louis and Baltimore, where last year six police officers were charged for their role in the death of Freddie Gray. These activists are part of a growing nationwide network of citizen patrols that call themselves cop watchers.
As the national debate over excessive police force has pierced the veneer of the presidential campaign, candidates from both major parties have struggled at times to address how they would tackle the problem.
The Jackson Heights group — one of 10 across New York City operating under the social justice organization, The Justice Committee — allowed NBCBLK to embed with it last month on a weekly patrol.
On patrol, group members know to be particularly vigilant. A source has told them about a new police initiative. One of several locals who group members say send tips via email or text, the source disclosed that he had attended a recent police precinct meeting. During the meeting, police announced a plan to increase police presence in the neighborhood this year by at least 30 officers.
"Our role is to document their movements so the community actually knows what's going on," one member says of the police.
The group first sets out for Roosevelt Avenue, the heavily immigrant neighborhood's main thoroughfare. Here, Colombian cafes, Mexican taco trucks and Indian nail salons dominate a landscape where a largely white police force typically patrols.
Under the hum of the No. 7 elevated subway train, members walk Roosevelt wearing black-and-white cop watch hoodies. Two pass out the know-your-rights pamphlets, printed in several languages, to passersby and street vendors. The pamphlets detail basic do's and don'ts of how citizens should engage NYPD officers. Each time a police vehicle passes by, members jot down the license plate number and aerial roof marking into their phones or on notepads. Two more members anchor the group - at the front and back - their cameras at the ready, to record any police activity.
Nearly an hour later, a member hears sirens a couple of blocks north. Immediately, the group takes off in that direction. As members approach the police vehicle, the car speeds away. The officers have played a prank on the group, a common occurrence, member Josselyn Atahualpa says.
"They antagonize us by waving at us and mocking us," she says. "They know we have the legal right to record but they'd prefer we not be out here."
"We protect our communities"
As a young person growing up in suburban Long Island, Atahualpa admits that she didn't personally witness much interaction with police that most would term police brutality. Then came the deaths of Ramarley Graham. Trayvon Martin. Kimani Gray.
For a generation of young New Yorkers, the deaths of Graham and Gray sparked a flame that had been on the point of igniting for years. Calls for police accountability reached City Hall. For Atahualpa, however, it was the shooting of Martin - the teen killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012 - that changed the course of her life.
"I was just graduating college and didn't understand the complexities of it all, of police brutality or of the systematic repression of communities of color," recalls Atahualpa, now a full-time cop watch alliance coordinator. "I had all these feelings but I couldn't actually articulate why the system failed us."
Atahualpa, 24, joined the Jackson Heights Cop Watch team in the fall of 2013. She organized meetups in the neighborhood, where she now lives, and explained to neighbors their rights. "We protect our communities," she asserts.
Esther, a local tamale vendor, says it was Atahualpa who accompanied her last year to the Queens County Court to contest four separate $1,000 tickets that, she claims, police issued, citing her for operating an unlicensed food cart. According to Esther, a Mexican immigrant who speaks no English and declined to disclose her last name, Atahualpa persuaded the authorities to remove two of the fines.
"They [the cop watchers] support people like us in the neighborhood from police harassment," Esther explains to this reporter in Spanish. "After we challenged them [NYPD] in court, officers stopped bothering me at my cart."
Is "Cop Watch" working?
In August 2014, much of the world watched the scenes of unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in the days following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police officer.
David Whitt lived in the Canfield apartments, less than a block from the scene. Whitt, who was returning home from church with his family when Brown was killed, paid tribute to Brown the following night along with hundreds of others at a makeshift memorial that had been erected in the middle of Canfield Drive. Whitt said police tried to drive over the memorial rather than protect it. "I was outraged," Whitt told NBCBLK. "I knew I had to stand up and do something."
Whitt joined the Canfield Watchmen, Ferguson's patrol group. He would go on to patrol the site every evening. Over the course of several months, he filmed residents being tear gassed by police, witnessed "outsiders" come into town to vandalize stores and destroy property.
"It felt so empowering," said Whitt. "We were raising awareness of what was happening in Ferguson and we had the evidence to prove wrongdoing."
Whitt began traveling across the country with Jacob Crawford, a veteran activist he met in Ferguson, to train other groups. Nearly two years later, they've become the face of a loose coalition of groups that call themselves cop watchers. These groups have no central leadership, but both critics and supporters agree that they are influencing police behavior on the ground.
"There's no question that the phenomenon of cop watch has impacted police behavior," said Jocelyn Simonson, an assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School who has researched and written extensively on the practice of citizens' monitoring police activity. "It's a form of expressing ownership over your own communities."
In response to the national public outrage over high-profile police killing of mostly unarmed black men, the debate has shifted over the past year to the issue of body cameras. Chief among the arguments is the notion that if a police officer is armed with a body camera, that could serve as a crucial deterrent to excessive force.
The details of such plans, however, have been vague and largely depend on the complete cooperation of police departments. That process, critics say, fails to meet any standard of transparency that will curb instances of excessive force in communities of color and in the population at-large across the country.
The NYPD began piloting a body camera program last year.
In a statement provided to NBCBLK, an NYPD spokesperson said citizen patrols are allowed to operate "so as long as they abide by the law, just like any other individuals. They have no police powers or authority," the spokesperson added. "If they perform security or investigative work, they may be subject to regulations of the NYS Department of State, as applicable." The department would not comment on the allegations that NYPD officers routinely prank "cop watch" groups.
Simonson said groups like those in Jackson Heights and Ferguson are eyewitnesses that provide the public with the only outlet to independently monitor police activity. "Civilian recording and body cameras serve different purposes. My worry is that as police body cameras become ubiquitous, people will feel that we no longer have a need for cop watching."
A Legal Limbo
The practice of recording police activity is a right protected by the First Amendment, with the caveat that observers don't "obstruct" police work in their attempts to record. However, some federal courts have interpreted the First Amendment differently.
Richard Fields, a Temple University undergraduate, brought a lawsuit after he was detained in September 2013 for filming a large group of police officers outside a campus house party. Amanda Geraci, a self-described "legal observer," who was restrained by police for filming an arrest at an environmental protest in Philadelphia the previous year, had brought her own suit.
In February, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that Fields and Geraci had no First Amendment right to videotape or take pictures of police officers without "a specific, critical reason for doing so." The court did, however, permit the plaintiffs to proceed to trial on the grounds of Fourth Amendment rights violations.
The ruling is one, Simonson said, that may ultimately be settled in the U.S. Supreme Court. "Cop watch is a right that is kind of in flux and the Supreme Court could set a precedent on either side of this debate."
Hopes for Reform
For Yul-san Liem, the Jackson Heights Cop Watch leader and co-director of the Justice Committee, monitoring police activity is "just one part of a larger movement to root out police violence in our communities."
Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of more than 60 social justice organizations across New York City, leads that larger movement. Its work, Liem says, took on new importance after the death of Eric Garner in July 2014. Garner died on a Staten Island street after an NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold while arresting him. The incident was caught on video.
In neither the deaths of Eric Garner or Michael Brown did the investigations lead to criminal charges against the police officers involved.
"Eric Garner was an example to the world of how important documentation is," Liem stresses. "We're under no illusions that cop watch will end police brutality in our city or our country but we know it's a step to reform."