Shortly after midnight on February 9, Lumumba Bandele, Dasaw Floyd, and Djibril Toure were driving down Greene Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant when they heard police sirens wailing about four or five blocks ahead.
For the three young men, this was nothing new. They’d spent many hours monitoring police activity for the Brooklyn-based Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s Cop Watch program, armed with little more than a video camera and a citizen’s right to observe officers in the course of their duties.
However, the sight of several police vehicles running red lights on a chase, and of one car speeding down the sidewalk, did raise an eyebrow. As the young men approached the scene at Throop Avenue, a witness ran past from the opposite direction, saying that police officers had just arrested someone—and that the officers had used excessive force.
“It was obviously a stop,” says Floyd. “It was obvious that something was happening, or had already gone down.”
By the time they got there, the Cop Watchers say, 39-year-old Christopher Dukes was handcuffed and inside a police car, after allegedly threatening a man with a knife. Toure says 15 to 20 cruisers were on hand, with at least 30 standing by. Turning on a video camera, Bandele, Floyd, and Toure made their way toward the center of the action—only to be ordered by an officer to leave.
Invoking their legal right to observe, the three stepped back, and Floyd continued to tape. Bandele says the officer again asked them to leave, and again, the three asserted their right to observe, insisting they had no intention of interfering. According to Toure, the officer then shoved Bandele. When Bandele asked for the officer’s name and badge number, the officer began arresting the three. At some point, Floyd was thrown to the ground.
Police confiscated his camera and took the tape as evidence. They accused the three of interfering with the arrest of Dukes, preventing the recovery of the knife he allegedly carried. In addition, they say Toure assaulted the arresting officer by jumping on his back and punching him.
The Cop Watch volunteers describe themselves as having been cooperative, if insistent on asserting their rights. “At no point in time was anyone resisting arrest,” says Floyd.
After being handcuffed and taken away in separate cars, the trio spent the night in separate holding cells at the 79th Precinct on Tompkins Avenue. That’s the same precinct where Cop Watch members and other locals gathered a year ago to decry the police shooting of teenager Timothy Stansbury Jr. on a project rooftop.
Word of the Cop Watch arrests last week spread quickly, and an angry crowd gathered at the 79th to demand their release. Community leaders were there, too, including Councilmember Charles Barron and aides to Councilmember Al Vann. By the time the three men were arraigned at central booking the next evening, 200 protesters were on hand. Malcolm X Grassroots Movement lawyer Kamau Karl Franklin describes hearing screams of support in an otherwise “pretty dead place.” When the night court judge released them, at about 9 p.m., the group responded with wild applause.
Now Bandele and Floyd face accusations of harassment, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and obstruction of governmental administration. In addition to facing those same charges, Toure remains accused of assaulting an officer. Their initial pre-trial hearing is scheduled for March 30.
Brooklyn community leaders are reacting with outrage to this rendering of the police department’s creed, “Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect.”
“If you’re practicing CPR, why would you get nervous about being filmed?” fumes Councilmember Barron, a Democrat from East New York and a onetime candidate for mayor. “You should be happy to be filmed. If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t have a problem with being filmed.”
Others express anger at what they believe is an attempt to railroad community organizers known for monitoring police.
Jeffrey Fogel, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says police too often slap charges on anyone who tries to challenge them in the streets. “Resisting arrest is an easy one to stick on people,” he says. “Even if the arrest is no good, people can be charged with resisting.” It’s also not unheard of, he says, for police to drop a felony assault charge if defendants promise not to sue.
A spokesperson for the New York Police Department stresses that the agency works with community groups but won’t tolerate meddling. “When officers are interfered with, it’s a serious offense that results in criminal charges,” says Deputy Chief Michael Collins.
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was founded in 1995 and immediately became known for its focus on human rights violations in the African American community. In addition to running Cop Watch and pushing for law enforcement reform, the group provides clothing and meals for the homeless, sponsors a series of educational forums on everything from tenant organization to the prison system and racism in the music industry, and works to shed light on the plight of political prisoners. Cop Watch began in 2000 as a response to the police killing of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx as well as the surge in complaints of police brutality in central Brooklyn.
As a whole, Brooklyn recorded 1,756 complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board in 2003, and over 1,000 in the first six months of 2004. Brooklyn North, which includes the 79th Precinct, recorded 1,003 complaints in 2003, the second highest tally in the city. As for the 79th itself, in the year and a half between January 2003 and June 2004, there were 222 complaints.
“This kind of thing happens all the time, but not everyone has video cameras,” says Floyd. “People are conditioned to expect this kind of treatment by police.”
Cop Watch carefully teaches its members to conduct lawful patrols, says attorney Franklin. “I know that our folks are trained to do these. They know their rights, what to do and what not to do,” he says. “I know they were only documenting and videotaping.”
In the last year, Cop Watch has trained about 250 people, teaching them how to safely intervene in incidents of police misconduct. They learn how to invoke their right to observe from a reasonable distance, inform suspects of their rights, question officers about their use of force, and interview witnesses.
As many as 50 volunteers now regularly conduct patrols. Despite the recent setback, Bandele, Toure, and Floyd have insisted that Cop Watch will continue—and expand. “It has to continue,” says Floyd. “We have video cameras, [but] there’s no telling what could happen to people who don’t have documentation or know the law the way they should.”
“This doesn’t come in a vacuum,” says Toure. “When people question things that are abnormal and are arrested, we have to make connections. This is not about us, this is about everyone who’s been stopped and searched. We’re trying to make everyone aware of their rights.”
“We want everyone to be very clear that Cop Watch will continue. We have actually been approached by other organizations to implement Cop Watch in their own communities,” says Bandele. “Tactically, this is one of the worst things the police department could have done.”