Published Aug. 2, 2007
WATCHING THE WATCHERS
Keeping an eye on the police with Orlando CopWatch
By Billy Manes
Four months ago, ACLU Central Chapter president George Crossley went public with his intentions to monitor the local police with hand-held video cameras. He, along with activists Ben Markeson and Josh Leclair, launched CopWatch largely to address perceived racial profiling by the police in an era and an area of escalating criminal behavior. CopWatch has now been out several times, gaining uncomfortable recognition from the local news media and the Orlando Police Department. We rode along July 27 to get a better sense of what’s really going on outside of Orlando’s comfort zone.
7 p.m.: “We’re with CopWatch,” George Crossley approaches a transient walking down the street Friday night, handing him a flier. “We’re here to make sure the police don’t overdo it. If you see the police overdo it, let me know.”
We’re on Hicks Avenue, just off of South Street, assembling tonight’s conscientious observers. The plan is to spend a couple of hours handing out fliers in predominantly black areas of the city and west Orlando, then take to the streets in cars looking for flashing red-and-blue lights. The group is equipped with clipboards for taking down scene details and officers’ names when possible, and video cameras for recording incidents and preventing bad police behavior. There’s a palpable sense of activism in the air.
On board tonight are Crossley, Leclair, Mark Shipley (who used to work a similar program in Washington, D.C.) and his neighbor, Richard Bolling. It’s a skeleton crew, but according to Crossley, it doesn’t take much.
“The first stop we make, [the officer] will get on the radio and 1,100 OPD officers will know,” he says. “When we get to the county, the same thing will happen. The point is, they don’t know if it’s 10 or 100 of us out here, and we want to keep it that way.”
They started going out once a month, but have escalated to twice a week. Crossley says Tuesday and Thursday are important because “that’s the day OPD meets their ticket quota.”
“CopWatch” T-shirts donned, we head over to West Church Street to start the evening.
7:39 p.m.: “So you guys against the cops?” a teenage girl asks Crossley.
“Don’t even say that,” he says. “They watch you. We watch them.”
Outside of City View, which feels more like a ghost town than a burgeoning metropolis, the crew passes out the fliers and explains the cause. One black couple leaving Gossip’s Caribbean Restaurant takes great interest, even giving their phone numbers for future involvement. They’ve seen the problem, they say, and they want to get involved.
Crossley pops out of a Quizno’s with a message that the woman working there would be thrilled to receive more information, although a follow-up visit produces only cautious interest. A patron, a young black woman, seems unimpressed. “They work really hard,” she says of the cops.
Back on the sidewalk, Crossley explains that one of the purposes of CopWatch is to track the behavior of repeat offenders. He says there are three sheriff’s deputies and one OPD officer of interest, and that he collects the information so that he might later take official action.
“Certain officers are at odds with the black community,” he says. “They should be assigned elsewhere.”
In the last month, he’s received 17 complaints, almost all of them from within the black community. “It’s like digging into warm sticky male bovine feces,” he says. “The more you dig, the more you find.”
On South Street, near the Coalition for the Homeless, a transient offers this observation, “You just walkin’ down the road and they arrest you.”
8:25 p.m.: We arrive at 1488 Mercy Drive – Palms Apartments – an area where Crossley says police infractions are rampant. (One tenant, he says, is being evicted just for knowing a criminal.) The scene is dire, a post-apocalyptic projects wasteland with small gatherings of kids and adults in outside hallways and broken-down playgrounds.
Just as we pull up, OPD car No. 7423 pulls in and the officer gets out. He approaches Crossley, who explains our intentions.
“He has somebody upstairs he wants to talk to,” Crossley reports.
We follow Leclair around the immense apartment complex and find resounding support. The goal, says Leclair, is to establish CopWatch chapters within communities, complete with cameras. Some of the excitable kids talk of problems well beyond their years. That is, until a notepad shows up.
“Which one of you saw a police officer beating someone up?” asks Crossley, who’s summoned us over to another group of children. Silence.
“Reportedly, a cop beat up somebody and left the scene,” Crossley tells me, and then motions to the police car in the distance. “The problem is parked 100 feet away.”
A group of girls sitting on a green power-transformer is more forthcoming. “I saw something today that I didn’t like,” she says. “A cop was swerving down the road coming up close to the curb while we were sitting here.”
9 p.m.: “I like fliering and talking but I’m ready to get out and start doing what we do,” Leclair says, as we drive past a “No Dumping of Rubbish” sign on the way out of the Palms.
In the car, Leclair and Shipley talk about the complacency inherent in activism, how it’s not about the limelight or the reporters but about actually getting out and doing something.
“Some people think they want to do this,” Leclair says. “Then they come out here and they don’t want to do it anymore.”
9:05 p.m.: The chase is on. We spot two police cars speeding east down Washington Street into Parramore and park at a church two blocks away from the scene. (The intention is not to have your car “tagged” by the police.) At the one-story, multiple-unit residence, a black man with dreads is sitting on the hood of police car No. 7396, with four other police cars behind it, each with their lights on.
A child’s screams fill the air, eventually drowned out by a fire truck and an ambulance. The man, whose bare chest appears to have been cut open, calls the screaming girl over and puts her on his lap, trying to comfort her.
The actual incident is unknown, but our cameras are out. Crossley is filming from behind and Leclair from up front. There are officers in the residence and officers – one black man, one white female and two white men – taking a report from the man, who himself is pantomiming some fight maneuvers with his arms. A stretcher comes but is refused.
“We knew Friday night was going to be hell on wheels, but we didn’t expect it to be this early!” Crossley says.
By 9:30, a woman from within the residence is arrested and driven away.
“Eleven-hundred OPD now know we’re here,” Crossley smiles.
9:45 p.m.: “How many people can you find that are crazy enough to do this on a Friday night?” Crossley asks while chewing on a giant chili dog outside of the downtown 7-Eleven at 83 E. Colonial Drive.
A bit like the police themselves, then, as our humble group gathers for a junk-food intermission. Crossley talks about his vision for the ACLU, which is heavy on pound-the-pavement activism and light on “talking about what’s wrong” while sitting in offices. He speaks of Leclair’s involvement with the Young Communist League, and how in the 1940s the ACLU went staunchly anti-communist, firing Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from their ranks. Not on his watch, he says.
Leclair recalls the first night of CopWatch, when he approached an out-of-control officer with his camera. The officer responded, “What are you recording for? So you can take it to WFTV?” That’s exactly what Leclair did.
An apparent vagrant bikes by and shouts, “You’re an asshole!”
10:05 p.m.: Crossley and Bolling head off to Pine Hills, while Shipley, Leclair and I go in the direction of South Orange Blossom Trail. There, the county sheriff’s department probably hasn’t heard anything about us yet tonight.
We spot a prostitute getting into somebody’s car near Gore Street. I ask Leclair if he ever feels like he’s seeing crimes that the police are missing.
“All the time,” he says.
10:27 p.m.: We swing into the Premier Adult Factory Outlet parking lot after spotting something in a field nearby. At first, it’s just two Florida Highway Patrol cars and several SUVs gathered around a Ford sedan. Soon the Orange County Sheriff cars arrive.
Leclair takes out his camera as we walk over to the scene. At first it’s hard to make out exactly what’s going on. A young Hispanic man appears to be getting a field sobriety test – his arms are stretching out and back in again – while in the SUVs, undercover cops in shorts and T-shirts are typing on laptops.
Five of them approach us and say we have to back up behind a fence. One of them says, “You’ll get nothing here. It’s just a traffic accident.”
Shipley informs the officer that by law we are allowed to be as close as 20 feet, although later he’ll tell me that he’s uncertain of that law in Florida. Another officer from the FHP plays nice and lets us linger. The Ford’s bumper is bashed in with one of its headlights cracked, and officers are taking photos of the back of one of the SUVs. It appears that the hapless offender rear-ended an undercover unit. Tough break.
Nothing unusual happens. If you don’t count an overabundance of authorities, that is.
11 p.m.: Cruising past Holden Heights, the group assures me that some nights are more eventful than others, and that just our presence at these incidents can be a deterrent to police misconduct.
“You must sometimes feel like you’re just getting in the way. So what makes you go out and do this?” I ask Leclair.
“ I do it so that they know that they can’t just get away with anything,” he says.