55 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2015 Last revised: 9 Jul 2016
Date Written: August 1, 2015
This article explores the phenomenon of organized copwatching – groups of local residents who wear uniforms, carry visible recording devices, patrol neighborhoods, and film police-citizen interactions in an effort to hold police departments accountable to the populations they police. The article argues that the practice of copwatching illustrates both the promise of adversarialism as a form of civic engagement and the potential of traditionally powerless populations to contribute to constitutional norms governing police conduct. Organized copwatching serves a unique function in the world of police accountability by giving these populations a vehicle through which to have direct, real-time input into policing decisions that affect their neighborhoods.
While many scholars recognize that a lack of public participation is a barrier to true police accountability, when searching for solutions these same scholars are often preoccupied with studying and perfecting consensus-based methods of participation such as community policing, neglecting the study of more adversarial, confrontational forms of local participation in policing. By analyzing copwatching as a form of public participation, this article challenges the scholarly focus on consensus-based strategies of police accountability. The article urges scholars and reformers to take adversarial, bottom-up mechanisms of police accountability seriously – not just as protest, but as true participation. Doing so requires respecting observation and contestation as legitimate civic gestures worthy of protection.
Keywords: policing, police accountability, law and social change, Fourth Amendment, community policing
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