David Whitt recalls being beat up at the age of 18 in the back of a police cruiser, then dropped off in an unfamiliar neighborhood in a suburb outside of Washington, D.C. He stands by his story to this day: He didn’t have a weapon when police officers arrested him and a couple other young black men months before the beating. The police accused the trio of weapons possession, but the charges didn’t stick. When Whitt crossed paths with those cops again, he bore the brunt of their belief that he had gotten off lightly. Bleeding and stranded, Whitt, who is black, found a payphone and tried to call his mother to pick him up, but realized he didn’t know what neighborhood he was in. A white man approached him and tried to help, ultimately giving his mother directions over the phone. Whitt was grateful, but afraid to tell him about what had happened with the police.
“People don’t even believe that cops do stuff like this,” Whitt, now 35 told TakePart. “He probably wouldn’t have believed me, or helped me, if I had told him.”
More than a decade later, Whitt found himself living in the neighborhood in Missouri where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson last summer. Whitt and other residents of the Canfield Green neighborhood of Ferguson formed a group called the Canfield Watchmen to observe police as community members grieved at the memorial in the street where Brown was killed. That’s when he met Jacob Crawford, a pioneer of cop-watching—when ordinary citizens take to the streets to monitor, and often record, the actions of the police. As America grapples with the deaths of black men at the hands of police, this style of “policing the police” has grown in popularity across the country.
Crawford moved to California’s Bay Area in 2000, at a time when a group of four police officers with a history of complaints against them dubbed “The Riders” were brutally attacking people on their beat in West Oakland.
“Back then there were no camera phones, no YouTube, no Twitter,” Crawford said. “But I had a video camera.”
He decided to start documenting police encounters, and immediately noticed that police behavior changed when they were aware they were being recorded. That observation led to the co-founding of WeCopWatch, a nonviolent group with chapters around the country that seeks to deescalate police encounters. The idea is that incidents are less likely to become violent if ordinary citizens are equipped with cameras and understand their rights to observe an active police scene, through trainings.
“I’m not out here watching the police so I can video tape them doing this crap,” Whitt told TakePart. “I’m out here because I want to create a deterrent to police misconduct.”
After Michael Brown’s death, Crawford wanted to help so he flew to Ferguson and met Whitt, who told him about the Canfield Watchmen. The two like-minded activists quickly agreed: they needed more cameras. Within 24 hours they had raised more than $1,000, and today they’ve raised over $8,000—which is a lot considering the clip-on body cameras they use average $40 each. Equipping the community with cameras had an immediate impact.
“Everybody in the neighborhood where Mike Brown was killed has CopWatch shirts now,” Crawford said. “The cops don’t even get out of their cars.”
With the Ferguson group off the ground, Crawford has begun fundraising in Oakland—where the “Riders” may have been disbanded but police brutality allegations continue to fly—to provide more community members with cameras. Just days after a police officer’s slaying of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Whitt says he’s working with an organizer there to get a CopWatch started—and hopes to fly there to lead know-your-rights trainings.
“People are upset, even though they locked [Slager] up,” Whitt said. “For the safety of the community, people need to learn how to record the police.”
Part of the problem in modern policing is that law enforcement usually gets to tell their side of the story first, and the lack of evidence to support a counter-narrative means that story often goes unquestioned. The first local news report after Scott’s death featured a large photo of Slager in uniform, posed and smiling before an American flag and gave Slager’s official account of the incident in which he “felt threatened” after Scott allegedly reached for his Taser. “I believe once the community hears all the facts of this shooting, they’ll have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding this investigation,” Slager’s former attorney told the local newspaper, The Post and Courier.
But a video made by Feidin Santana offered stark evidence that that wasn’t the whole story. It captured the horrifying scene of Scott fleeing on foot as Slager shot him in the back five times. It was exactly the kind of incident that Crawford and Whitt believe cop watching has the power to prevent.
“Had that officer in South Carolina known he was being recorded, maybe [Walter Scott] wouldn’t have gotten shot,” Whitt said.
North Charleston’s mayor announced on Wednesday that the police department would be equipped with body cameras following Scott’s death. “That’s cool, but that’s not as effective as citizens having the video in their hands,” said Whitt. He noted that it took awhile for the video to be released—while Scott was killed on Saturday, the rest of the world didn’t see the truth until late Tuesday.
For Whitt and others in his community, the violent encounter he had as a teenager in Maryland was just the beginning of a series of experiences that have instilled a lack of faith in the police to protect the community.
“It’s very important that we as citizens understand that we cannot continue to put our total trust in the police department,” Whitt said. “I’ve been asked before if I hate the police; my answer is no, I really don’t. But I do not trust the police department. We have to take it upon ourselves to watch the police.”
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Original article from TakePart