Can you trust the police in your neighborhood to protect your rights on their own? A group of citizens in North Portland think officers might behave better if they knew they were being observed.
A new group called NoPo CopStop is holding regular meetings and neighborhood watches to reduce police brutality, racial injustice and increase community participation in North Portland's neighborhoods.
Looking for police activity may not be everyone's idea of a good time, but to the organizers of NoPo CopStop, it's a matter of civic responsibility.
"There are alternatives to police," says Chris Knudtsen, the group's founder. "So you don't have to have an occupying army on the block."
Knudtsen, along with about eight other founding members, started their neighborhood watch program to monitor local police activity in North Portland, an area of town they feel is wrought with racial profiling, saturated patrols and injustice. They intend to ensure citizens' civil rights are not being violated, and that police violence – if it happens – doesn't go underreported. The group also tries to educate its members and the public about their rights concerning police stops and searches.
The seemingly endless stories of police violence – from newspapers and friends – urged the CopStop group into action.
"It seems like every month (a violent, police-involved event) happens," Knudtsen says. "It never surprises me. I'll get upset. …Maybe there is a problem that the public isn't outraged."
The problem, Knudtsen says, crosses racial boundaries. From Kendra James to James Chasse, he says overzealous law enforcement affects the entire community. Knudtsen says he and other members of the group have backgrounds working with other social activist organizations.
"As we expand, we hope to get more African Americans involved," Knudtsen says. "We haven't had an opportunity to reach out to the church community."
Still in its infancy, members have yet to observe a single police stop in the North/Northeast neighborhoods, but say it's only a matter of time.
The group usually goes out on Friday nights. They all wear the same shirts and have all received training from more experienced members of the group on what to do and how to act when observing police activity. They walk main arterial streets, keeping an eye down side streets for police activity.
It's always good to know how much distance to place between yourself and the police, and be respectful, says Ben Bolen, a member of the all-volunteer organization.
Knudtsen and Bolen trained with Rose City Copwatch, and base their philosophy and cop watch framework on the Black Panthers. Both men say they have observed and documented many cases of police activity while patrolling with Rose City, a grassroots organization dedicated to changing or eliminating police institutions. Both groups hold regular neighborhood police watch walks.
Portland Police Spokesman Brian Schmautz says observing police activity is legal, and that an abundance of cheap digital movie recorders make it easier to watch the cops.
"We always assume everybody's watching us," Schmautz says.
Anecdotally, he says, groups like the NoPo CopStop have existed for as long as he's been on the police force – 25 years and counting. Because of the critical eye many of these groups give police departments, some officers may not look at the NoPo CopStop's efforts as helpful.
"You'd like people to be constructive (with their criticism)," Schmautz says.
Laurie Stewart, community outreach liaison with the Independent Police Review Division, says grassroots organizations like Knudtsen's are the building blocks of police accountability organizations in America. Portland has one of the oldest government-sanctioned police oversight committees in the country. Only about 200 official independent oversight committees such as the IPR exist in this nation, leaving unofficial volunteer organizations as the only check on police power in some jurisdictions.
"You need outside eyes looking at all of this," Stewart says, adding that no matter how good a police department is, "power corrupts."
The only police accountability groups Stewart has regular contact with are Portland Cop Watch and the Northwest Center for Constitutional Rights, and she says Cop Watch regularly takes police complaints and tracks cases of police violence, and the Center will file complaints with the IPR on the behalf of others. But, she adds, very few groups – just Rose City and now CopStop — actively seek to observe police activity, a time-consuming and possibly uneventful activity.
"There wouldn't be a whole lot to videotape," Stewart says. Compared to other cities, she adds, Portland's police have few charges of brutality and the relatively few patrol cars in North/Northeast Portland would make it a case of "right place, right time." Jokingly, Stewart says the group would have a better chance of videotaping police violence by going to a protest attended by the anarchists.
Schmautz said observers cause few problems between themselves and police. The main problem occurs when an officer performs a tactical duty and the observer comes in to ask a question. At that point, an officer should ask the observer to step back, directing any questions to occur after the situation has ended.
For their safety and legitimacy, Knudtsen says members of the group are all given basic instruction on how to behave when encountering police activity. Each member of the group is given a specific role to fulfill – note taker, videographer, spokesperson — before patrolling for the night.
Another role the members of NoPo CopStop would like to fulfill is the role of education. Knudtsen and Bolen want residents to know their rights when it comes to the police. On patrols, they make a habit of talking with members of the community about their group and talk about interacting with the police.
A small tip sheet gives advice about what NoPo CopStop thinks you should do if the police stop you. The tips encourage congeniality without being submissive.
"If you're stopped, remain calm," the leaflet states. "…You don't need ID unless you're driving. Police may detain you if you refuse to identify yourself.
If you have been arrested, do not offer any information other than your identity. Say, 'I don't want to answer any questions, I want to speak to a lawyer.' "
Interested in joining NoPo CopStop? The fledgling organization is looking for more members, a public meeting house and funding for a new digital video recorder. For more information, email NoPo CopStop at firstname.lastname@example.org.