This handbook is intended to introduce people to the main concepts of police observation. It is far from complete and we certainly learn more every day. It is true that in different parts of the country and in different situations, the people will devise COPWATCHing methods which better suit their own situation. Please use the information in this handbook as a way of stimulating discussion in your organization and providing a basis for forming your own police monitoring project. It can be quite challenging and at times rewarding. Good luck. Hope this helps.


We are a group of community residents and students who have become outraged by the escalation of police misconduct, harassment and brutality in recent years. We have joined together to fight for our rights and the rights of our community by taking on the task of directly monitoring police conduct. That’s right. We walk the streets and watch the police. Although it is important to resist police brutality by taking cops to court, filing complaints and having demonstrations, we believe that it is crucial to be in the streets letting the police know that THE PEOPLE will hold them accountable for their behavior in the community. We have no single political or religious belief. Our volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs. What we share is the belief that citizen participation in these issues and monitoring of the police is a crucial first step towards building a movement which is capable of stopping police violence and of challenging the increasingly powerful role of police throughout our society.

If you have been a victim of police abuse, witnesses abuse or are just plain fed up with police misconduct and want to do something about it, give us a call. We will train you to COPWATCH. We also need artists, writers, researchers, outreach workers, organizers and others to help. We are an all volunteer group so your help is ALWAYS needed!

Purpose and Goals

  • To reduce police violence and harassment through accountability.
  • Directly observe the police on the street

  • Walk in pairs; stop, watch and document incidents

  • Identify police (name, badge number, department, car license plate)

  • Record with camera, video camera if possible

  • Write detailed report describing the incident

  • Collect witness statements

  • Follow up with public pressure in legal proceedings

  • Support brutality victims in defense of false charges

  • Encourage people to file complaints or even sue police

  • Lobby to stop discriminatory legislation and policies that increase police powers over people’s civil and human rights

  • To empower and unite the community by looking out for each other

  • Educate the community about their rights

  • Distribute literature; do “ Know Your Rights” training

  • Expand community support for victims of police crime.

  • Publicize incidents in the COPWATCH Report and local press

  • Broaden community understanding of issues related to police violence

  • Encourage people to solve problems WITHOUT police intervention

  • Encourage people to exercise their right to observe the police

The Law

It is helpful for COPWATCHers to have an understanding of a few key legal concepts before going out to watch cops. You don’t have to be a lawyer to document police activity, but if you want to be more assertive about your rights and those of the community then it is worth taking some time to become familiar with the law.

There are many sources of law. The ones that are most relevant to COPWATCH are the state laws which are found in your state's Penal Code and local laws which are part of the Municipal Code. In addition, there are federal laws that you probably won’t run into much on the streets. However, it is worth knowing that everyone’s civil rights are, at least theoretically, protected under the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

Types of Violations


These are minor offenses such as jaywalking, illegal parking, open container of alcohol in public, being in certain parks after curfew, being a minor in possession of spray paint or large marking pens, etc. When an officer sees this kind of activity, s/he can ask to see I.D. If you have I.D. and you do not have any outstanding warrants, the cop should just write you a ticket and be done with it. If you don’t have I.D. on you, the cop HAS THE OPTION OF TAKING YOU TO THE STATION TO VERIFY YOUR IDENTITY OR SIMPLY WRITING YOU A TICKET AND LETTING YOU GO. This is up to the officer. You aren’t supposed to have to go to jail for infractions in and of themselves.


These are crimes such as shoplifting, trespassing, resisting, delaying or interfering with an officer in the course of his/her duty. Expect that you will be searched, arrested and taken to jail until you are either arraigned, bailed out or released on your own recognizance. (O.R.ed)


These are major crimes. Murder, rape, robbery and many drug related crimes are considered to be felonies. Expect that you will be searched thoroughly and will be in custody at least until you are arraigned.

Types of Stops

It is very important that you understand why an officer is stopping someone and what their rights are when they are stopped. Determine exactly what kind of stop the officer is making.

Consensual Stop

This is when the cop approaches you and begins talking to you. The cop may even ask to see your I.D. You don’t have to show it. Ask the cop “Am I free to go?”. You don’t have to talk to the cop or even remain in the area unless the cop says “No, you can’t go” and has a reasonable suspicion to detain you.


The police are allowed to detain you if they have a “reasonable suspicion” to believe that you have committed or are about to commit a crime. The officer must have some reason for stopping you. They can’t just say that you don’t look like you live in the neighborhood or that they “had a hunch”. The detention should be limited in its purpose and scope. They can conduct a pat search of the outside of your clothing in order to check for weapons, but you DO NOT HAVE TO CONSENT TO A SEARCH of your pockets or bags. You do not have to answer any questions. You may want to produce your I.D. in order to avoid being detained for a longer time while they try to verify your identity.


This means that you are in police custody and you are being charged with a crime. You will be thoroughly searched as part of the booking process. You have a right to know why you are being arrested. Even though police often won’t tell you, you have the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer. Don’t give up these rights.

Extra Legal Info

Answering Questions

Legally, when a person is arrested or detained by a police officer, he or she does not have to answer any questions to the officer, on the grounds that it may be self-incriminating. (Miranda codes).

Resisting or Obstructing an Officer

The police will often threaten COPWATCHers with this charge, but remember you do have the right to observe as long as you are not attempting to interfere with the officer.

Use of Force to Effect Arrest

Section 835.a of the California Penal Code describes the only “legal” use of force by an officer is in order to attain an arrest. “Any peace officer who has reasonable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a public offense may use reasonable force to effect the arrest, to prevent escape or to overcome resistance.”

Assault by an Officer

Police brutality is defined in the California Penal Code as, “Police breaches of due process guarantees by the physical abuse of citizens without legitimate cause.” Section 149 of the California Penal Code makes it illegal for a cop to assault or beat any person “without lawful necessity.”

Police Search Powers

The police have the power to question someone only if they have “reasonable suspicion” that specific facts connect that person to a specific crime. In this case, the cops can also pat someone down to feel for a weapon, and if they feel something that feels like a weapon, they can go into that person’s clothing to look for it. Otherwise the cops can only search someone’s pockets, back pack, or belongings if that person:

1. Has been arrested for a specific crime,

2. Has a search clause as a condition of probation, or

3. Gives the police permission, which nobody is obliged to do.

Police Seizure Powers

Police may not confiscate someone’s belongings unless they are illegal or that person has been arrested for a crime. If possessions are confiscated, the California Penal Code entitles the owner to a receipt (1535) and a return of the possessions after the resolution of the case (1537). Any evidence obtained through the seizure may be suppressed from being used in court if the seizure was unreasonable (1538.5).

Gang Profiling

Sometimes cops use petty laws to stop people in order to take their pictures. These photos are often used to create files on people and to portray people as “gang members”. Detaining people to take photos merely because they are suspected gang members is impermissible. (People vs. Rodriguez (1993) 21 Cal. App. 4th 232.)

Various State and Local Laws you should Research in your Area

  • Panhandling

  • Lodging

  • Trespassing

  • Drinking in Public – Note: Having alcohol on your breath is NOT a crime.

  • Open Container

  • Knives, possession of

  • Bicycles

  • Dogs

  • Obstructing Sidewalk

  • Minors in Possession of Tobacco


Intimidation Through Accountability

Our main tactic in COPWATCH will be to discourage police brutality and harassment by letting the cops know that their actions are being recorded and that they will be held accountable for their acts of harassment and abuse. To this end we will:

  • Record incidents of abuse and harassment

  • Follow through on complaints

  • Publicize incidents of abuse and harassment

  • Work with the Police Review Commission

  • Educate those who don’t believe that police harassment exists

Diffuse Situations

People don’t want to be arrested. As COPWATCHers, we don’t want to escalate a situation to where police arrest someone as a way of getting back at us. We want cops to treat people with respect and to observe their rights. Often, cops forget that homeless people and others actually have rights. We may need to remind them from time to time. We must learn how to assert our rights and to encourage others to assert their rights without endangering someone who is already in some amount of trouble.

We do not attempt to interfere with officers as they make routine arrests. We document and try to inform the cops when we feel that they are violating policy or the law. Attempting to stop someone from being arrested often has serious consequences for the person being detained as well as for the reputation of COPWATCH as being a non-violence based organization. In a physical encounter with police, we must realize that the cops have weapons, prisons, courts and judges to back them up. In addition, we do not want people to be nervous when they see COPWATCH coming to help them. We want to keep people from going to jail in the first place and not send them to jail with more serious charges.

Empower the Community

As people on the streets serving the public, we are not only concerned with the cops. We are concerned about the PEOPLE. Our effectiveness as COPWATCHERS will be greatly enhanced if we are trusted by the community. During our shifts, we must try to get to know the people who hang out on the street. For this reason we will try to schedule people who know the area with those who are newer to the scene. Building relationship is crucial. We can listen to people and help when it is possible. This aspect of COPWATCH depends on the willingness of the members to get to know and appreciate the street community.

When the streets are quiet and there is no police activity, a COPWATCHer can spend time distributing the “Know Your Rights” cards or just getting to know people. Introduce yourself. Explain to people that you are with COPWATCH and that you want to hear their stories. If people know that you are trying to help and that you care, that can be empowering.

Depending on how familiar and/or comfortable you are, you can assist people with problems that arise. We want our community to solve problems wherever possible WITHOUT POLICE INTERVENTION. If you can help folks resolve a conflict, communicate, understand each other you are doing great. It is crucial that we move our communities away from the idea that we are totally dependent upon police for justice and safety.

Shift Procedures

Begin Shift

  • Be sure your warrant status, bike or car is up to date. Don’t give the cops any opportunity to bust you. Identification can be very helpful if the police detain you.

  • Have a partner for safety as well as good COPWATCHING. It is VERY important not to confront the police alone. You must have a witness and someone who can verify YOUR story in case of a problem.

  • Organize to meet your partner at a mutually agreeable time and location

  • Make sure that you are not carrying anything illegal

  • Wear identification (COPWATCH identification badge)

Be sure that you or your partner brings things you will need to COPWATCH:

1. Incident forms

2. COPWATCH Handbook

3. Complaint Forms (BPD and UCPD)

4. COPWATCH literature to distribute

5. Tape recorder, scanner, video recorder, cameras

6. Penal Code

During Shift

Shifts last for approximately 3 hours. Please be on time for your shift as your partner is probably waiting for you. If you are unable to work your shift please call your partner and the shift coordinator so that you can get a substitute.

Try to be on the street for as much of your shift as possible (don’t spend an hour in a coffee shop). Be where people can see and talk to you. After each incident, take time to fully fill out the incident report.

As you observe a situation, one partner records what officers are saying or doing, while the other one quietly gets information from witnesses. Consult and share information. Get a firm grasp of the situation FIRST. Record as much information as possible. Witness names and numbers and badge numbers are most important. In fact, every officer must wear either a number or a nameplate when they are in uniform. (California Penal Code section 830.10) It also helps to write down when, where and what time the incident happened. If there has been an injury, encourage the person to see a doctor and take pictures of the injuries as soon as possible.

Remember that you have the right to watch the cops. You don’t have the right to interfere. Interfering with a cop is a violation of California penal code section 148 (delaying, obstructing or resisting arrest). If a cop wants to send you a message, they will arrest you for 148 and then, even if they don’t press charges, you still had to go through the unpleasant experience of being arrested.

When you observe police remember that you don’t want to make the cop more nervous than they already are. Keep your hands visible at all times. Don’t approach an officer from behind or stand behind them. Don’t make any sudden movements or raise your voice to the cop. Try to keep the situation calm. You don’t want to get the person in more trouble. If an officer tells you to step back, tell the officer that YOU DO NOT WANT TO INTERFERE, YOU SIMPLY WISH TO OBSERVE.

More Assertive Style:

  • Ask victim if they know why they are being arrested or detained.

  • Get the badge number. Ask the cop if you can’t see it.

  • If the stop is vague, ask the cop to name the Penal Code Section that they are enforcing.

  • Have educational conversations with people standing around.

  • Don’t piss the cop off if you can help it. Don’t let it get personal.

  • Negotiate the situation. If possible get a phone card (know your rights) to the victim

  • Identify yourself as `COPWATCH’.

  • Try to stay until the stop is concluded. Remember that Rodney King was just a traffic stop originally.

  • If the person wants to take action, give them complaint forms or refer them to CW office.

Principles: Non-violence

  • Be polite to everyone you meet including the police.

  • Don’t insult or incite them. This is counterproductive.

  • Don’t carry anything illegal or give cops an opportunity to bust you for non-COPWATCH activity.

  • Of course no weapons, knives, drugs, etc. Do not COPWATCH if you have had alcohol.

  • Don’t yell. Speak in a calm, audible voice.

  • Avoid quick or sudden movements when you are around cops.

  • Don’t run to a scene. Walk. Remain visible to the officer at all times.

  • Keep your hands visible at all times, too.

  • Do not use flash cameras or video lighting when officers are engaging in a routine stop of someone.

  • If a stop escalates into unnecessary use of force use whatever tools at your disposal to record and document the situation.

  • Don’t assume who is right and who is wrong. Observe and document before taking action.

  • Try to be helpful to the citizen being stopped without making his/her situation worse. Our goal is to lessen the incidents of harassment and violence, not escalate them.

Be Careful of:

Don’t inadvertently collaborate in a crime (don’t become a look-out, warning if police are coming, etc.)

Don’t let people use COPWATCH name to shied illegal stuff.

You may get arrested at times, but if you are doing good COPWATCHING the organization will support you.

Talking to cops is a bad idea. It can undermine your credibility with the community as well as giving the police information about you and the group.

Taking pictures or videotaping can be a problem if the detainee doesn’t want you to. Respect them. Tell them that you are working to stop police misconduct. If this doesn’t satisfy them, turn off the camera. Remember that you are representing COPWATCH with every act and every word.

Those that come after you will have an easier time if you do your job well.

Don’t make promises that you/we can’t keep. Don’t tell people that we will get them a lawyer, take the cops to court, etc. Tell people that we will work with them to get justice. Invite them to a meeting.

Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” if you are asked legal questions. Better that than giving out wrong information.

End Shift

Return completed incident reports to the office. Be sure that they are legible and that you put your name on it in case office people need to do follow-up. Check the weekly COPWATCH shift log and sign it. Return scanner and any other equipment to the office for the next COPWATCHers to use. Please check the equipment and note if anything is wrong with it.

Watching Cops

Cops Stop Someone

  • Write down officer name, badge number, car license number.

  • Write down the time, place and date of incident Determine if person is being arrested and if so on what charge.

  • Get names of witnesses to the arrest/harassment and how to contact them.

  • Try to get the name of arrestee, but don’t ask their name unless they have already given it to the police.

  • If necessary or possible, photograph and/or record incident on tape.

  • Fill out incident form completely.

Cop Violence

  • Same as above

  • Attempt to gather witnesses to the incident by explaining to bystanders what is happening.

  • Encourage cops to be calm and non-violent

  • Call 911.

  • In this way, the incident will be recorded at the police communication center.

In Case of Arrest

If you are arrested, the police must tell you why you are being arrested. Also, be sure to get the badge number of the officer who is arresting you. You have the right to remain silent. In fact, it is probably a good idea not to talk to the officer. If you are in custody, the police may not question you about any offense they think you have committed without first reading you your rights., including the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney present before you are questioned. The court must provide you with a lawyer if you can’t afford one. You have the right to speak to a lawyer before arraignment. If you are arrested, you may be searched without your permission. As soon as possible, and in no case later than three hours after booking, you have the right to three phone calls: to a friend or relative, to a lawyer and to a bail bondsman.

If Someone Else is Arrested

Find out where they are being held, what the charges are and how much bail is.

Technical Support

Police Scanner

The scanner is a portable radio that is used to monitor police radio communications. There are 100 channels in the scanner, each tuned to a frequency used by either UC or Berkeley police. The scanner controls that a COPWATCHer may want to use are described here:

VOLUME: This knob is on the top of the scanner that adjusts the volume coming out of the speaker or headphone. It also turns off the scanner so remember this when you are finishing your shift.

SQUELCH: This knob, right next to the volume knob, is adjusted to cut out the static between messages. Its like the mute button on an FM tuner.

MANUEL/SCAN: These are two buttons on the front of the scanner. When the scanner is first turned on, it is in scan mode, meaning that it flips through all 100 channels repeatedly until it comes to a channel being used. It will monitor this channel until the transmission is ended and then resume scanning the 100 channels. Sometimes, you might want to stay on just one channel to monitor an important exchange. To do this, press the MANUAL button. The scanner will stay on the current channel. Every time you press the MANUAL button, you go up one channel. Pressing the SCAN button resumes scanning.

When using the scanner, you are basically listening for locations. You want to find out WHERE to go to observe the police. Don’t be distracted by all of the other conversation happening on the scanner. Also, in recent years, the police have reduced their use of radios and rely more on cell phones and computer terminals in their cars. Don’t worry if you aren’t hearing much. There might not be much going on.

If the scanner starts to act funny, the batteries are probably going dead. It uses four AA batteries. If you have to buy batteries while on shift, save you receipt so that we can reimburse you later.

Also, try to be discreet when using the scanner. It can easily make people on the street think that you are a cop or are working in some official capacity for the state. Keep it in your backpack and use it like you would a walkman.

Police Radio “10” Codes for Berkeley, CA. (May be similar in other cities)

Ten-1 msg not understood

Ten-2 signal is good

Ten-3 stop transmitting

Ten-4 msg received (OK)

Ten-5 relay info to _________

Ten-6 station is busy

Ten-7 out of service

Ten-8 in service

Ten-9 repeat last message

Ten-10 Negative (“No”)

Ten-11 _______in service

Ten-12 stand by

Ten-13 report________conditions

Ten-14 information

Ten-15 msg. Delivered

Ten-16 reply to msg

Ten-17 en route

Ten-18 urgent

Ten-19 contact________

Ten-20 unit location

Ten-21 call by phone

Ten-22 cancel last message

Ten-23 arrived at scene

Ten-24 assignment completed

Ten-25 meet ___________

Ten-26 esttime of arrival is _______

Ten-27 req. for info. on license

Ten-28 req. vehicle reg. Info

Ten-29 check records

Ten-30 use caution

Ten-31 pick up

Ten-32 units requested

Ten-33 emergency! Help needed

Ten-34 correct time

Video Camera

COPWATCH has a 8mm video camcorder which is a very powerful tool for documenting police abuses. Its operation is very simple, but the importance of thinking about what you are taping can’t be stressed enough. This handbook can’t teach you how to be a skilled videographer, but here are some points to keep in mind when filming:

  • Keep the strap around your neck when you are filming for safety’s sake

  • Don’t film people who obviously don’t want to be filmed

  • Don’t film criminal conduct if you see any. Focus on the police.

  • When you are done using the camera, take the battery out so that it doesn’t run down.

  • When you film, try not to record yourself getting into arguments with the police. It is very frustrating when we have good footage of an event but a hostile commentary from the videographer. Try to let the situation speak for itself. Let your partner do the talking if it is necessary.

  • Be sure to press the button which gives the date and time on the screen

  • If you do film anything significant please transfer the footage to VHS tape and label it properly. If you can’t do this then tell someone in COPWATCH who can.

  • Don’t let that sun shine directly into the lens. Don’t put the camera at undue risk of being confiscated. Back off if necessary.

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