Camilla Hall’s latest documentary, Copwatch, tells the story of WeCopwatch, an organization whose mission is to film police activity in order to create accountability and deter violence against their communities. Armed with only cameras, knowledge of their rights, and a deep appreciation for their communities, Jacob Crawford, David Whitt, Ramsey Orta, and Kevin Moore are cop watchers from different cities tied together by an instinctual drive to bear witness and expose the truth.
Despite Orta’s video evidence of the NYPD murder of his friend, Eric Garner, and Moore’s footage of his friend, Freddie Gray, being tased by Baltimore officers on the sidewalk (Gray later suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody), there were no police convictions in either case. In fact, Orta, whose name became well known after the high profile case, is the only person involved in these incidents who is serving prison time. Told through footage from Hall’s film crew, as well as intimate moments from the copwatcher’s own footage, the film shows us how Wecopwatch supports not just their immediate communities’ pursuit of justice and accountability, but each other.
We are proud to partner with WeCopwatch. Over the past 2 years, we’ve worked together to adapt sections of our Video as Evidence Field Guide into a more localized training handbook, and co-organize several trainings on the ground in St.Louis. You can read more about our work with WeCopwatch in St.Louis here. We also worked together this past winter to create a new guide for Standing Rock activists. WeCopwatch shared it at the Oceti Sakowin camp where they spent several months conducting trainings and building strong bonds and alliances with indigenous leaders, water protectors and The National Lawyers Guild’s Water Protector Legal Collective.
To learn more about the Copwatch film, we corresponded with Hall. Q&A below.
How did you first learn about the cop watchers featured in your film, and why did you want to tell the stories of these people behind the camera?
I first read about Ramsey and Kevin in the newspapers and saw that both had been arrested shortly after filming the videos. It seemed like an important story to look into, so I managed to get in touch with Jacob and he really helped me to connect to the rest of the group. As I met each person I found them incredibly brave and inspiring but also brutally honest about their experiences. It was important to me that other people got to hear their stories too.
Through social media and mainstream news outlets, people are exposed to stories and videos of police brutality and police violence, unfortunately fairly often. Among all these other news sources, why do you think eyewitness accounts and footage from cop watchers are important?
I think documenting a police interaction makes it harder for the narrative to be altered in any way. Unfortunately, courts do not treat all witnesses equally, so a video can also offer a witness a voice in a way that they may never had a chance to share otherwise. Thirdly, as the copwatchers would tell you themselves, the best kind of Copwatch is where nothing happens and the presence of a copwatcher may actually prevent an encounter from developing in a different direction.
Besides filming the encounters with police, what were other ways that Jacob, David, Ramsey and Kevin offered support to people being harassed or targeted?
In St. Louis in particular, We Copwatch has hosted Know Your Rights trainings and carried out court support for members of their local community. They try to both offer support for witnesses to police violence as well as train people about their rights. They were also on the frontlines at Standing Rock trying to share knowledge and support the native-led community as they faced police violence.
Your film offers great examples of how people are trying to hold those in power accountable through filming. With increased attention to how cops plan to use those same tools to surveill populations and allegedly increase their effectiveness (i.e. body cameras), how do you think we as civilians can continue to use video effectively?
I think the most important thing is to educate yourself. It is a responsibility to film and you have to be responsible in the way that you do it.
What is something you hope people, who have either been cop watching their whole lives or who have never heard of the term before, learn from your film?
I think this film has a bigger takeaway, beyond filming the police, which is simply to look out for another person. Take a conscious decision to look out for someone else. Do not walk past.