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Cop Show

What civilian monitoring of the police really sees

Twenty-five years after Los Angeles rose up, how far have we come as a nation? Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.

George Holliday did not intend to take a stand against police brutality when he reached for his camcorder in the early hours of March 3, 1991. The 31-year-old plumber heard someone being assaulted by the cops outside his home, and decided to film it so that other people would believe what happened. Although the officers who brutally attacked Rodney King that morning would eventually be exonerated by a mostly-white jury, Holliday's 81 seconds of footage would be broadcast on every news network and discussed in nearly every national publication. Overnight, it became virtually impossible to ignore the reality that agents of our justice system can and do carry out acts of senselessly excessive violence-- and the fact that the public can, and should, film suspicious police activity. A new era of civilian monitoring of the police had begun.

Even before the advent of handheld video cameras, many Americans understood police brutality as a norm, not an exception. Generations of black and brown folks knew very well that police officers can have an agenda that is more about exercising power over certain populations than law and order. Keep in mind that early American police organizations included slave patrols, which even carried badges similar to sheriffs' stars still used today. Since the abolition of slavery, watching the police has been about protecting black communities, and other vulnerable people, against an openly hostile society.

In the Jim Crow era, resources like The Negro Travelers' Green Book helped identify friendly lodging around the country and ways to avoid places where cops or white civilians were most likely to threaten black motorists. (Visitors to New Mexico, the spring 1956 edition advised, "will find little if any racial friction there.") Civil rights movement organizations like the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) called attention to the abuse and negligence of police. The Black Panthers took mistrust of police further; from the moment of their founding in 1966, they not only protested the racist violence of law enforcement but also organized armed patrols of Oakland, California neighborhoods to guard against it.

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All this time, there were attempts to bring racist police to justice, like the 1966 case of 25-year-old Leonard Deadwyler, who was shot by the LAPD while rushing his pregnant wife Barbara to the hospital to give birth to their son. Barbara Deadwyler attempted to sue the LAPD for the wrongful death of her husband, but lost. Cases such as these had to rely on eyewitness testimony — when people were willing to come forward. Even when a civilian does give testimony contradicting the word of an official police report, the courts almost always side with the officers involved. The system protects itself, and cops are agents of the system, even when they do harm while wearing their badge.

In the late 1980s, consumer-grade video equipment started becoming more common and affordable. This gave some activists the idea to arm people with cameras as a tool for bringing bad cops to justice. The organization Copwatch was officially founded in 1990, a year before Rodney King was assaulted by police and two years before the L.A. riots erupted. What began as a community group documenting incidents of police harassment of the homeless population on Berkeley, California's Telegraph Avenue has grown into an international network of independent organizations that monitor police and educate the public about their rights when engaging with law enforcement. Their logos often depict cameras and, in recent years, cell phones. One of the things Copwatch groups want everyone to know is that they have the right — a righteous duty, even — to film the police.

When someone films an act of police brutality, or a cop's body-cam catches the incident, there is no guarantee that the evidence will help bring justice for the victims in court. The outcome of the King case drove that lesson home; the riots began shortly after the verdict was announced, and continued for six days. This was the beginning of a new and terrible cycle. A video is released that appears to depict police assaulting civilians, and in many cases taking life. Attempts are made to blame the victim-- for having a criminal record, looking suspicious, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The community tries to keep everyone's focus on the cops as perpetrators of violence. There are protests, and sometimes riots. The case goes to court, where the officers are usually found not guilty of the very thing they were filmed doing. Then there are more protests, more rioting, and even more reasons for communities to try to police the police.

But cop-watching isn't just about presenting evidence after someone has been brutalized. It is largely a preventative measure. People are generally more cautious when they know they are being watched, especially when cameras are present. It's a basic principle of surveillance, like making security cameras highly visible in stores to deter theft. That same idea is applied by those who watch the police. Not only will they make their presence and cameras known when police are present, but they will also wear clothing with Copwatch logos and post signs in their neighborhoods to let law enforcement know their activity is being monitored. The hope is that this vigilance will prevent another person from being beaten or killed by racist, overzealous cops.

Every time there is a case like the assault on Rodney King or the murder of Michael Brown, interest in civilian monitoring of police increases. In both cases, those cities had Copwatch groups in place for nearly a year prior. The people who are willing and able to hold police accountable simply can't be everywhere at once. No one can predict when and where police brutality will happen. Similarly, no one can predict if such incidents will be the tipping point for communities already under the pressure of white supremacy playing out in their neighborhoods.

As we reflect on the L.A. riots, we need to remember that the match in the powder keg is always a justice system that devalues black lives. When society's response to such uprisings is to militarize the police, that is obviously not the solution. It didn't work after the Watts riots of 1965 and it hasn't worked to prevent uprisings in Los Angeles, Ferguson, or Charlotte since. The problem America needs to address is within its system of policing. Maybe this ever-growing archive of police brutality caught on camera, which first got national attention when George Holliday turned on his camcorder, will help us realize that rioting is a symptom and not the illness.

Read More: Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.