Documentaries

WeCopwatch Gets Its Due: Doc About Nationwide Police Watchdog Featured at Major Film Festival

A new documentary portrays the people who catch police misconduct on video.

Photo Credit: Adriel Gonzalez

From Staten Island to Standing Rock, "copwatchers" are everywhere in America.

"Copwatching is an idea, it's an act. WeCopwatch is a group," explains WeCopwatch founder and Oakland-based guerrilla filmmaker Jacob Crawford at the documentary's start. 

Crawford has been copwatching since the early 2000s, having been inspired by George Holliday, a Los Angeles plumber who used his Sony Handycam to tape the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department in March 1991.

"Seeing that there's a real issue of police brutality in East Bay, I thought I'd take my camera out to the streets and really try to document what was going on," Crawford says.

But copwatching is often risky, and in extreme cases, creates a downward spiral of retaliation. Ramsey Orta, who filmed Eric Garner's chokehold death at the hands of police, was sentenced to prison in April 2015. And he's not alone. 

"I started to see a trend of arrests happening," Copwatch director Camilla Hall told AlterNet.

For the documentary, Hall went to great lengths to tell Orta's story, both in and out of jail.

"I met with his lawyers and it was not easy given his legal proceedings," she said. 

According to Orta, the viral video shot two years earlier made him a constant target. Even more ironic is the fact that not even Daniel Panteleo, the police officer who killed Garner, has served a day in jail. 

"After the video, things just went bad for me," Orta says from his cell. 

Orta's attorney, Ken Perry, explains why citizens like Orta are so vital.

Police "were claiming there were eight sets of separate drug sales," Perry says in the film. "They turned over videos of what they called the smoking gun drug sales."

"It's wonderful," he said. "Except for one thing: they edited them."

Police, when confronted, attributed this fact to the investigation being ongoing.

After Orta's sentencing, support came in from around the globe. His bail was paid and he was released from Riker's. 

While Orta's story fails to make headlines these days, he continues to seek justice. Two weeks ago, he was put in solitary confinement, unable to contact Hall due to his phone privileges being taken away.

"I had to make this film and raise awareness of these stories," explained Hall. "But other people have to get involved to take this fight further." 

Copwatch premieres April 23, 2017 2pm-4pm at Cinepolis Chelsea in the 16th annual Tribeca Film Festival.

Watch: Copwatch : Exclusive Clip

Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.

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