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May 30-June 5, 2007

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The Byrne Report

The Right to Witness

By Peter Byrne

It is Friday night, May 11, and I am riding the streets of Petaluma in a car full of teenagers looking for cops. Karin Adams, 21, a healthcare worker, is driving. Back at the Petaluma CopWatch base station, someone is monitoring police radio frequencies with a second-hand police scanner. Alerted by cell phone call at 10:30pm, we roll up on a Westside 7-Eleven.

The cop watchers--three women, one man--jump out and begin observing two policemen who are citing a young man of color. One videotapes the encounter. Another assures the officers they are here only to watch, not to interfere with police duties. The man is being ticketed for buying liquor for minors. It is a sting operation. An undercover officer sits with two underage operatives in an unmarked car nearby. He speeds off as the CopWatch kids approach.

After the citation is issued, one of the watchers approaches the officers and asks for their badge numbers, which they produce with forced smiles. Another watcher talks to the perp, informing him of his legal rights while being questioned by police, and giving him a wallet-size brochure with CopWatch information and contacts.

Afterward, the citing officers stare incredulously at their police vehicle, which is leaning crazily to one side. Unseen by us or the cops, someone has slashed two tires. It will have to be towed.

One or two nights a week, roving CopWatch teams monitor police activities in Petaluma. Mostly high school or junior college students, the volunteers number about two dozen. The organization is less than a year old. Adams expects the group to grow as the community responds to an epidemic of homicides by Sonoma County law enforcers.

CopWatch was born in Berkeley in 1990; today, there are about a hundred chapters nationwide. In fact, the first ever CopWatch conference will be held in Berkeley July 13-15. The materials state: "Our intent is to strengthen the national network of nonviolent CopWatches, not create a national or centralized organization."

That precisely sums up the grassroots beauty of CopWatch: it is politically organic; it is indigenous to each community; it is all-volunteer, decentralized and not (yet) fronting for a political party. It has but one goal, Adams says: "To reduce police violence by directly observing the police on the street, documenting incidents and keeping police accountable. We encourage people to solve their problems without police intervention. Most importantly, we encourage people to exercise their right to observe the police and to advocate for one another."

After the embarrassing flat-tire scene at the 7-Eleven, we observe police handing out traffic tickets to people, most of whom are Latino. Most officers divulge their badge numbers to CopWatch. One obviously irritated cop refuses to comply and speeds off in his cruiser. Until recently, Petaluma police, according to Adams, generally declined to reveal their badge numbers. Then an ACLU attorney wrote to Petaluma Police Chief Steven Hood pointing out that "the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers." Hood replied, "[We are] committed to the identifiably and accessibility of [our] uniformed police officers." Indeed, Hood recently visited a class at Casa Grande High School specifically to answer questions raised by CopWatch members.

While mature and experienced community activists are proposing to create a commission to investigate alleged police misconduct, the relatively inexperienced but creative youth of Sonoma County are leading us in the opposite direction. CopWatch practices a well-proven method of protecting the populace against police excesses: witnessing. Human rights-type commissions tend to be passive, stumbling, conflict-of-interest-laden bureaucracies designed to fail at investigating the aftermath of such police shootings as those of Jeremiah Chass and Richard DeSantis.

Next, we hit the Lakeville Apartments. Three cop cars show up for a domestic problem. Officers question two young Latino men on the doorstep. One goes inside. CopWatch members fan out on the sidewalk, cameras and notepads in hand. The officers start loudly patronizing the young men, advising them to get educations so they won't have to do construction work. The cops start to leave--but not before an orange-haired watcher asks for, and gets, their badge numbers for her incident report. In this instance, as in all the others I witnessed that night, the subjects of police attention expressed relief and gratitude that CopWatch was on the prowl.

With enough watchers, lives may be saved. For CopWatch, call 707.696.1694.

Contact Peter Byrne or send a letter to the editor about this story.