In response to the rising incidence of police abuse in Berkeley, COPWATCH was started in 1990 to observe and document police activities and interactions with the community. The program also serves as a reminder to the police that the community will hold them accountable for their actions and provides a way for people to participate in their community. COPWATCH organizes citizen patrols that cover the streets of Berkeley. The patrols are comprised of pairs of volunteers who walk the streets for a shift (usually of a few hours), keeping an eye out for police activities. The organization promotes nonviolence and works toward the de-escalation of situations involving the police.
When patrols come across the police detaining someone, they stop to observe the interaction. They carefully document incidents with a variety of methods, including recording the interaction with video or still cameras, collecting witness statements, and gathering information on the officers involved in the incident (especially their names, badge numbers, department, and police car license number). When appropriate, the patrollers encourage victims of police misconduct to file civil lawsuits against the police and will use the documentary evidence collected to support such claims. At the end of their shift, patrollers write detailed reports on any incidents they observed. These reports are then publicized in the organization's own publication, COPWATCH Report, and/or in the local press. While on patrol, volunteers also talk to community members and pass out informational cards in an effort to educate people about their rights and the legal procedures involved if they are detained by the police. Since its inception, COPWATCH has documented numerous incidents of police misconduct and abuse. It also documented police response to the 1991 People's Park riots and the introduction of wooden & rubber bullets into Berkeley police arsenal. The success of COPWATCH-Berkeley has led to the creation of COPWATCH chapters in other cities, including Denver.
COPWATCH underscores the need for observers to be careful not to cause more harm to the person being detained by inadvertently escalating the situation and/or causing the police to arrest the detainee. To this end, COPWATCH emphasizes the importance of patrollers wearing identification and acting appropriately when observing the police; in particular, it instructs volunteers not to make sudden movements around the police or run up to them when they are detaining someone. As a precautionary measure, COPWATCH also requires volunteers to patrol in pairs at all times during their shift.
Another challenge faced by COPWATCH is the variety of responses from different groups within the community in terms of public support. Those who are financially better off do not see police misconduct with regard to homeless and poor people as a problem, and those who are less well-off are divided over whether there should be more police or less police. This divide results in varying levels of support for the organization and its objectives.
New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.