When the police harm, it is often in the shadows. The only witnesses are other cops and the person who was stopped. Copwatching arose as a strategy for accountability; to witness, document, and record abuses by police. In many instances, however, there is no video or the video does not tell the full story.

How do we know what really happened? If the police can violate rights and murder, and are the sole witness and reporters to their actions, how are they held accountable in any real way?

We conduct People’s Investigations to find any details the police are leaving out or lying about, to locate patterns that illuminate how the police operate in our communities, and to tell the stories of those who were harmed in the shadows.

Anyone can investigate the police. No special credentials are needed and, in most situations, it is completely free.

Whether you are the one harmed or you are investigating on behalf of someone else, it’s important to begin documentation as soon as possible. This includes a narrative of events in as much detail as you can muster. Memories fade and the details can get fuzzy with time, even in just a few days.

Within 24 hours, go to the scene of the incident. Talk to potential witnesses and get names and contact info if they are willing. It can be helpful to go in a pair so one person can take notes while the other asks questions. This is less intimidating for most witnesses than using a recording device (if you do so, always ask). Have a flyer printed with your contact info to hand out. Consider posting an informational flyer in the neighborhood seeking witnesses. Notice any cameras in the area that might have captured video of the incident. Talk to businesses, sometimes they can’t give you footage but will let you videotape their footage on your phone.

File a Public Records Act request. Under California law, you have the right to access public records to monitor the functioning of the government—this includes police. The law requires your request to receive a response within ten days. However, police departments are known to find loopholes to elongate this timeline. Start the clock ASAP. What documentation you request depends on the specifics of the incident. You may want police body camera footage and audio, full police reports, dispatch records, and much more. See Copwatch’s guide to writing a request at berkeleycopwatch.org/cpra. Read the full People’s Investigation Handbook at berkeleycopwatch.org/people-s-investigation for more details on what kinds of documents to request from different government agencies.

It can be heavy and overwhelming to sift through all the documentation once it starts to come in. Definitely have a team, and track everything the first time you read it so you don’t have to go back. If you have footage from the people, log and mark each clip. Do not assume you know what you will find.

At Copwatch, we center the wishes of the survivors of police violence and their families. If someone still has a pending case or if the family wishes certain information not be publicized, these are some reasons you might modify or hold back altogether from publishing the findings of your investigation. 

A People’s Investigation can be used as part of a campaign for justice. Our investigation into the in-custody death of Kayla Moore in 2013 served as a building block in organizing for a police alternative response to mental health crises. In collaboration with Maria Moore, Kayla’s sister, we advocated fiercely for Care Not Cops. Last year, Berkeley began a pilot program for the Specialized Care Unit that responds to calls for mental health and substance use crises without police. Though the program is limited, it represents the impact of the community’s decades-long demands.

Get active. Be aware. Refuse to be abused. 

Berkeley Copwatch is an all-volunteer organization with the goal to reduce police violence through direct observation and holding police accountable for their actions. Formed in 1990, they seek to educate the public about their rights, police conduct in the Berkeley community and issues related to the role of police in our society at large. For more information visit www.berkeleycopwatch.org.