These days any feelings of hope and promise that seemed to just recently ebb and flow within the Black community particularly in impoverished neighborhoods are long lost. Instead, pain appears to be the constant, pulsing through us all as we hear about new deaths and shootings and as we watch our Constitutional Rights continually get trampled over. We do not live in a time of optimism, but we do live in a time of action. In Camilla Hall’s “Copwatch,” we meet the men who have been policing the police, the ones who continually stand up for their fellow citizens while subjecting themselves to abuses by the boys in blue.
Looking at police brutality from a different lens, “Copwatch” moves from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore, Maryland, and Staten Island New York, following Kevin Moore, Ramsey Orta and Dave Whitt, the men who have made cop watching their profession. Brought together by Oakland native Jacob Crawford who has been documenting police incidents for decades, the men form the organization WeCopwatch. By following this group of men, filmmaker Hall explores the aftermaths of the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Mike Brown in their communities while examining police brutality today.
In 2015, Baltimore native Kevin Moore captured Freddie Gray being beaten, arrested and dragged into police custody. Gray would never be seen alive again. When State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby promised to prosecute and convict the officers who were responsible for Gray’s death, Moore was sure that he would be called to testify. He never was. No convictions were obtained, and the charges against the remaining officers were dropped. In the end, Moore was left feeling bamboozled and devastated just like many of us were throughout the country. His fellow cop watcher Dave Whitt lived in the Ferguson neighborhood where Mike Brown was massacred in the street. Though Whitt did not capture Brown’s death, he’s an active community member and pupil of Jacob Crawford who was taught his rights and how to properly cop watch. He has also continually rebuilt Brown’s memorial despite it being burnt to a crisp repeatedly. Hall follows these men as they move about their neighborhoods, documenting police encounters of their fellow citizen, but never really digging below the surface.
Still, perhaps the most engrossing subject of the entire film is Ramsey Orta, the young New Yorker who filmed the death of Eric Garner. It’s clear that Orta is no angel and though I wouldn’t personally put it past the NYPD to throw anything they had at Orta, Hall is not exactly clear about presenting him as he truly is. With quite a few drug related cases against him, partially a case for selling heroin, we never really get a true grasp on who Orta is. He’s vibrant and relatable on screen, and we sympathize with his plight, but Hall is only able to capture one particular facet of his persona.
More of a stream of consciousness film than an eye-opening piece filled with revelations about police behavior and citizens rights, “Copwatch” left me wanting more. As Dave, Ramsay, Jacob, and Kevin continue to observe the people who are supposed to be making their neighborhoods safe, they are harassed, obstructed, belittled and talked down to. Very few of the officers seen seem to have any compassion when it comes to dealing with the public, particularly when it comes to communities of color. There is only one Black cop near the end of the film in Ferguson who seems willing to have a genuine dialogue with the men who approach him. And yet, that conversation brings neither the cop watchers nor the film viewers any solace.
As we continue to resist a tyrannical government and it’s grotesque practices, cop watching is obviously needed. And yet, the frustrating part about “Copwatch” and its story is the fact that it doesn’t offer any real resolutions or fully fleshed out back stories about the people who lost their lives at the hands of the police nor the members of WeCopwatch and what has driven them to action. “Copwatch” is a frustrating look at improper policing and the policies that continually allow those wearing badges to murder people of color and walk away unscathed. Police brutality is a centuries deep crisis that has and will continually plague our country. With the 1991 beating of Rodney King, citizens have found a new way to resist and surveil the police. But to what end? Collecting badge numbers, names and video recordings have yielded very little results. Furthermore, despite compelling moments and small glimpses of the subjects pasts, Hall’s “Copwatch” feels unfinished. It lacks the historical context, transparency, and facts that would have positioned this film on another level. Instead, “Copwatch” further exacerbated the point that police reform is almost mythical, which broke my heart all over again.
“Copwatch” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami