Matthew Swaye’s hands shake with nerves as he walks through Sugar Hill with his phone out. He has never really looked for trouble, but he knows trouble can be just around the corner or across the street.
And then he spots it: a New York City police officer questioning a neighborhood kid. The youngster is no one Swaye knows, but he is drawn to the situation. He has to act, and act fast, hoping that everything will run smoothly. He’s still a little nervous; he knows that if he’s arrested and convicted of a crime, it will be tough to land a job in an already troubled economy.
But he finds his resolve, pushes the record button on his phone, aims and shoots.
Swaye and other Harlem residents are fighting the controversial practices of the New York Police Department’s stop, question and frisk policy – better known as stop-and-frisk. The weapon of choice: a camera. Nothing fancy or expensive, just a simple point-and-shoot or camera phone is enough to capture the moment.
Copwatch, as it’s called, is quickly becoming a trend in Upper Manhattan and elsewhere in the country.
Copwatchers patrol neighborhoods either on foot or by car and videotape police-civilian exchanges to document any police misconduct or brutality.
Some Copwatchers think that by videotaping, they are actually preventing a violation. But Swaye, 35, believes that he and other Copwatchers are often portrayed as instigators or seen as superior to the officers.
“Other times I feel like I’m a part of some type of criminal class, because I see myself as an ally to the criminal class,” he said. “I’m always kind of shocked when I don’t actually get handcuffed. It’s a very sickening feeling.”
But not everyone views Copwatching through quite the same lens.
“They’ve been trained to see us all as animals and thugs,” said Christina Gonzalez, 26, referring to the police. “Just the idea that I’m filming can be very intimidating. Most of the time, the young men get to walk away, but I’ll never know what might have happened.”
Gonzalez has been an activist since Occupy Wall Street last year. She finds filming justifiable in documenting police interactions, particularly because surveillance cameras already monitor most activity on the street. “We’re on camera all the time,” she said. “I think it’s important that we should be watched, and now they are, too.”
After being arrested for disorderly conduct at Occupy Wall Street, Gonzalez was approached by the New York-based Stop Mass Incarceration Network, whose mission is to end police brutality and bias practices, such as racial profiling.
Since then, she has been actively involved in monitoring police activity, and posts her videos online. As of early November, she had 478 subscribers, and her 46 videos have been viewed more than 110,354 times since she created the account last January. Her videos include everything from “know your rights” training segments to an average Copwatch encounter.
Despite the growing popularity of Copwatch – there are 354,000 “know your rights” videos on YouTube – most people don’t know they have a legal right to film police in a public place. But Copwatchers have gotten so much attention that some officers are fighting back, Gonzalez said.
“We have our cameras out, and now the cops pull their cameras out,” she said. “ I want them to see that I don’t hate them. We have to think on a human level.”
Swaye doesn’t consider himself an activist. With a background in theater and education, he never understood the appeal of film until the Occupy demonstrations, where he was also arrested and met Gonzalez in jail. Now life partners, they are considered driving forces of the Harlem Copwatch movement.
“I never really got that we were one of the leaders and I love that,” Swaye said. “It’s real.” So real, that he can’t handle reliving confrontations and has to leave the room when Gonzalez plays a heated Copwatch encounter.
Last July, Gonzalez uploaded a four-minute “know your rights” training video in which she filmed a police officer in an unmarked car in Harlem. He gets out, stops her and asks her to show ID. She lawfully refuses, attempts to walk away and the officer allegedly grabs her bag. Gonzalez can be heard off-camera shouting, “I’m being detained illegally. I want to leave; I haven’t committed a crime. … Don’t put your hands on me again.” The officer tries to keep her at the scene and tells her he’s going to arrest her. But as the video continues, another officer arrives and explains that Gonzalez has a legal right to film police, and she is free to go.
Their Copwatch activity has put Swaye and Gonzalez on the police’s radar. Swaye has been arrested five times for civil disobedience; Gonzalez has been charged more than 20 times for offenses ranging from disorderly conduct to resisting arrest. Last June, she was charged with assaulting a police officer when she shook a barricade at a stop-and-frisk protest, she said. She was also sentenced to 10 days at Rikers Island for contempt. Swaye said his only conviction was for disorderly conduct.
They’ve become such active protesters that police have posted their mug shots and home address with the phrase “Professional Agitators” in their local precinct. Taped to a podium, the flyer reads: “They video tape officers performing routine stops and post on YouTube. Subjects purpose is to portray officers in a negative way and to deter officers from conducting their responsibilities.”
“I didn’t know if I was paranoid or what, but I actually thought the police were following me,” Swaye said. “After I saw the poster, I knew I wasn’t losing my mind. The legal activities we were doing were getting us unwanted attention.”
Kim Royster, a police department spokeswoman, denied the poster was an attempt to intimate the pair, but was used to alert officers at the precinct, according to the New York Daily News.
The majority of people stopped and detained in stop-and-frisk are nonwhite. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, ethnicity is the primary factor in determining whom police stop. In its “Stop and Frisk: The Human Impact” report, the center found that last year, only 9 percent of those stopped by the NYPD were white, while 84 percent were black or Latino. The center also said stop-and-frisk activity has increased 600 percent since 2002.
“We realize the sensitivity involved in every stop,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said during a recent speech to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. “We must preserve the trust and support of the communities we serve and conduct stops with courtesy and professionalism.”
Kelly announced a series of steps to address the oversight and training involved in stop-and-frisk. They include reviewing regulations that prohibit racial profiling and providing additional instruction on how to conduct lawful stops. He also said the Civilian Complaint Review Board reported that despite the increased stops, complaints about police officers fell to the lowest point in five years. The Uptowner’s analysis of data from the Center for Constitutional Rights showed an 8 percent drop compared to 2010, and a 21 percent decrease since 2007.
“That’s a good sign, but we can always do better,” Kelly said. “The protection of civil liberties is as important to the police department as the protection of the city itself.”
Eighteen percent of the stops reported in 2011 occurred in the Sugar Hill neighborhood where Gonzalez and Swaye live. The 30th Precinct, which covers Hamilton Heights, Sugar Hill and West Harlem, had 7,550 stops in 2011, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. One in two of those stopped, more than 95 percent of them black or Hispanic, were also frisked, and force was used in 1,461 cases. Eighty-four percent of those stopped were innocent, the Civil Liberties Union said. Overall, stop-and-frisks increased 14 percent from 2010 to 2011.
The police department, contacted by email and telephone for comment on this story, did not respond.
The Civil Liberties Union has created a Stop & Frisk Watch app. According to its website, the free application allows users to record incidents, report the incident to the Civil Liberties Union and complete a survey reporting the police interaction. The app includes a “know your rights” section to instruct users about their legal rights when confronted by police.
“If nothing else, it’s getting people to think about what’s happening on the streets,” said Jennifer Carnig, the organization’s director of communications. “People always say sunlight is the best disinfectant and we certainly agree. We’re happy it’s bringing discriminatory police to the forefront.”
Carnig said the Civil Liberties Union has received more than 10,000 downloads on Android devices alone. An iPhone version is being developed.
“We have attorneys review every single video,” she said. “There are dozens of videos that we’re taking seriously.”
But not everyone supports the app. Gonzalez said it’s better to keep a copy of a video instead of sending it to the Civil Liberties Union. She said she wouldn’t be able to keep a record of her videos or share them on YouTube if she recorded them with the Stop & Frisk Watch App.
Meanwhile, Swaye remains anxious when he’s out shooting videos.
“I’ve never found it anything but horrifying. My hands still shake when I film.” he said. “It’s hard sometimes; I’m trying to find grace in it.”