Copwatch emerged as a movement in the United States in the 1990s. Today, the network of street monitoring volunteers who capture police misconduct on video is active in the US, Canada and a number of European states. Ukraine recently joined the lot.
“We do not interfere, we just observe,” says Serhiy, a Ukrainian copwatcher. Activists prefer to film the police openly rather than on hidden cameras, and upload the videos to YouTube. “You can’t videotape me,” police officers often protest on camera. “Why not?” activists ask. “Because you can’t!” There is no law banning the videotaping of officers on duty, as Art. 5 of the Law on Police defines the work of the police as public. “A police officer is a public figure and represents the government. Therefore, he or she should not turn to privacy laws for protection,” lawyers comment.
Still, Ukrainian copwatchers have to be cautious even if acting within the law. “We always videotape police in groups of three or four,” copwatcher Bohdan says. “One of us stays nearby to call friends if we happen to need help.” These precautions come from intimidation and threats to arrest activists while they are taping. “Recently, some police officers wanted to take us to their station to book us. They didn’t find any legitimate reason so they asked us to go with them voluntarily. We refused. Desperate, they started calling someone and asking whether they had the right to arrest us. We eventually got bored and left,” Bohdan recalls.
Ukrainian online media is saturated with video clips exposing the routine illegal actions of many police officers, such as refusal to show their IDs. “I once saw two highway patrol officers smoking next to a gas station,” activist Serhiy says. “I asked them to stop. ‘What do you mean?’ one asked surprised. ‘It’s a gas station’ I explained pointing at the huge No Smoking sign. When I asked their names, one stated the common fake name Ivan Ivanov. I asked to see his police ID. Instead, he grabbed the other officer by the hand and ran to the car.”
Copwatchers ran into another officer Ivan Ivanov at the central railway station in Kyiv. “The police are really aggressive there because they are involved in deals with transport, smuggling and so on,” activists explain. “They hate being video-policed. Once, we started taping as they stopped a guy with bags. The police left him immediately, ran to us, grabbed us by the hands and shouted to turn off the camera. This was our dialogue:
– What’s your name?
– Ivan Ivanov!
– Ok, can I see your ID?
– Why should I show it to you? I’m not going to!
– So, you’re not a police officer. Should I call 102? (the emergency number for the police – Ed.)
According to copwatchers, the last phrase is a magic wand. The police are afraid of it because they know that an officer refusing to show his ID risks getting a letter of reprimand, losing a bonus, or worse.
With time, Ukrainian copwatchers have learned to throw cold water on both average police officers and police chiefs. “Sometimes the videos uploaded on the web result in personnel changes,” Serhiy says. “For instance, after a video of the police beating a homeless person at the railway station was posted on YouTube, the officers involved were fired. Someone in Donetsk videotaped some intoxicated on-duty policemen. One lost his job; the other got a serious reprimand. Overall, the Ministry of Interior’s press service keeps an eye on these things.”
Videotaping does not always work this way, especially with illegal actions by the police at rallies and protests. “The police are ordered by top officials to disrupt the rally, so they beat people knowing that they have some sort of protection,” says copwatcher Yevhen. In such cases the activists who experienced police misconduct should take it to the court, he insists. However, this is next to impossible in Ukraine today. As a result, the feeling of impunity encourages further police misconduct.
Ukrainian copwatchers believe that waiting for the system to change makes little sense and people should start changing their own actions instead. Activist Serhiy admits that he feels he can breathe easier now. “The normal reaction is to get nervous when talking to the police,” he explains. “My legs were shaking when I did for the first time and I couldn’t explain why. Now I can talk to the police freely. After all, it’s their job to protect us.”