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Policing the Police with Columbus Community Cop Watch

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Policing the Police with Columbus Community Cop WatchPhoto via Pexels.
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Columbus Community Cop Watch isn’t waiting for a new police chief. And they’re not waiting for the Columbus Division of Police to review and implement recommendations from the Community Safety Advisory Commission. They’re not waiting on reform.

Founded by Hana Abdur-Rahim, Cop Watch is a grassroots approach to creating more transparency in the policing of Columbus residents. In essence, they police the police.

“I was just tired of things not getting done by City Council members, the mayor. We need to just watch them ourselves,” says Abdur-Rahim, referencing the local police killings of Tyre King, Henry Green, Julius Tate Jr., Jaron Thomas, etc. “Basically, we’re trying to prevent another shooting from happening, and prevent another case of police brutality from happening in specifically black and marginalized communities.”

Each member has downloaded a scanner app on their phone so that, at any given time, one or more can respond to a dispatch call and record the ensuing interaction between police officers and civilians. They don’t have a camera crew or anything, they’re just using the cameras on their phones. And it isn’t a widespread group. So far, they have about seven or eight regular members. 

Similar to the police, the types of situations Cop Watch deals with are varied. On the scanner they’ve heard calls about thefts, drug overdoses, confrontations and just plain “odd behavior.” Several times they’ve dealt with the situation on their own, situations they say don’t require punitive measures. They keep Narcan on them in case they arrive at overdose scenes before the police. 

One incident this past winter involved someone calling the police complaining of a man barking and yelling in an alley. Cop Watch members assumed it was a case of mental illness or addiction — “issues that never go well with the police. Remember Jaron Thomas,” says group member Michelle Love-Davis.

When they arrived on the scene, their assumption was proven right. The man’s limbs were shaking, and he appeared to be dealing with a mental issue or addiction. His shoes were wet and it was frigid outside. Driving a minivan, Love-Davis opened the door, noted how cold he looked, and asked if he needed a ride.

“The way he was behaving as he was sitting behind me, oh my god the cops would have— he was fidgety, all kinds of jerky movements,” Love-Davis says. “You can be doing everything they say and get shot, but if you don’t have control…”

They ended up driving the man to his cousin’s house.

Upon arriving at the scene, Cop Watch members will notify the individual or suspect that they’re recording for their legal benefit; Cop Watch will offer them the video for potential use in court. The group also typically posts the video on their Facebook page, often going live. Usually, the suspect or individual doesn’t mind. 

Police officers, however, do mind.

Cop Watch members recount incidents where officers used intimidation tactics to get them to stop recording. Love-Davis says one cop drove his car purposefully to act like he was going to hit them, another shined his spotlight directly in their eyes. 

After one interaction recorded by Cop Watch, an officer wrote out a citation that said Love-Davis was parked more than 12 inches from the curb. When Love-Davis went to move the car, a confrontation unfolded.

“I get in my car, my door is still open, and I put the keys in the ignition. He grabs me, grabs my phone, throws it in a puddle. He’s like, ‘give me your name, your ID.’ I go, ‘it’s in my phone in the puddle.’ So he said ‘that’s a failure to ID, you’re going to jail.’

So I’m in the police car, and he keeps talking, and after 45 minutes he says [the charge] isn’t going to stick. So he has to write it up as something else so I can get charged. He said I was going to flee. It was a ‘thought crime,’ and he could tell that was going to be my intention. So it went from a ticket for parking too far from the curb to a much higher offense.”

Love-Davis eventually had to hire a lawyer and go to court, pleading it down to a minor misdemeanor, which came with community service, court costs, and a $50 fine.

When asked about incidents of intimidation, interim Chief Thomas Quinlan provided a statement:

“I cannot confirm individual encounters you mention but generally state that if you are visibly following an officer that is a red flag to officers who understandably will be more likely to stop the person to investigate suspicious activity. While that might seem out of the norm to a casual observer all you need to do is look around the country and read the accounts of encounters where officers have been ambushed or killed and you will appreciate why an officer might be concerned, officers can be targets and are allowed to take measures to protect their own lives. If the encounter turns out to be innocuous then both parties depart safely. But situational awareness is an absolute requirement for officers safety. Officers do pull people over for traffic violations which many argue are nonsense reasons, but a legislature passed the law that allows for its enforcement. I do not always agree with the reason for the stop either, but there is a legal basis that permits the stop.” 

The cost of participating in Cop Watch — being on law enforcement radar, potentially being fined for minor offenses — hasn’t deterred Love-Davis or fellow member Eric Bellamy.

“As white people, we might have court costs and stuff. But we’re not out here getting murdered by police,” says Bellamy, the original moderator of the Cop Watch page.

Abdur-Rahim says the majority of Cop Watch’s core members are white, “because it’s safer for them. I’ll go out and do it, but I don’t want to put another person of color in harm’s way.”

The group is amping up its efforts after a months-long hiatus to cope with the loss of activists Amber Evans and Rubén Castilla Herrera. Cop Watch encourages their followers to record police interactions when they can, and the group will hold training sessions for new members at the end of summer and in the fall.

“This is just preventative measures. To constantly react drains me,” says Abdur-Rahim. “I would rather protect people than have to fight for them after they’re dead.”

Find more information on Columbus Community Cop Watch here.

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