Preparing for Cop Watch

Cop Watching in NYC is legal, but there are important things you should know to stay safe.

Essential information for Cop Watchers

Cop Watching is powerful and completely legal if we practice it correctly and understand our rights when interacting with police officers.


Before beginning, it is crucial to understand the risks of police accountability work and those unique to Cop Watching. Although the practice is legal, there is real risk of arrest, aggravating police, and physical danger. It’s completely within the realm of possibility that you or other Cop Watchers on your team could be arrested or injured while documenting police encounters.


It is not legal to physically interfere with police activity: for your own safety, do not physically get involved in a street stop. Physical involvement could lead to serious injury for either you or the person being stopped, and you don’t want to make an already bad situation worse. As evidenced by the shootings of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Ramarley Graham, the NYPD has a well documented history of violence against members of our community, especially Black men. You should approach police encounters and crime scenes with great caution.


Here are a few things you can do to keep safe while on Cop Watch patrol:

  • Always keep your hands visible.
  • Never approach police officers from behind.
  • Be polite to police officers and witnesses.
  • Refrain from raising your voice or acting aggressively.
  • Never make sudden movements
  • Always try to keep things calm
  • Maintain eye contact with police and avoid acting in an aggressive manner, especially when pulling objects from your pockets while filming.

You have the right to film

The U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Court of Appeals have both declared that the First Amendment protects citizens’ right to record the police in a public space, and prevents the police from destroying or tampering with footage. You can film police in a public space as long as you're not physically interfering with law enforcement operations.


When approaching a police stop, investigation or an accident, police will likely order you to move back to avoid “interfering” with their work. At that time you may take a few steps back and state that you are exercising your legal rights to observe and film. If you feel you’re already standing at a reasonable distance, it is up to you to decide how far back you’re willing to stand to avoid arrest.


If you think any misconduct or violation of rights has occurred while on Cop Watch patrol, immediately file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and share your story and/or video footage with us here.

What to do if you're targeted by police while on Cop Watch patrol

Here’s what you should do if you are stopped, questioned, frisked, arrested, or injured while on Cop Watch patrol:

  • What you say to the police is always important.  Everything you say can be used against you. You have the right not to speak. To exercise this right, you should tell the police, "I would like to remain silent."
  • You never have to consent to a search of yourself, your belongings, your car or your house. If you do consent to a search, it can affect your rights later in court. If the police say they have a search warrant, ask to see it. If they don't have a warrant, you have the right to say "I do not consent to this search." Police cannot arrest you simply for refusing to consent to a search. This may not stop the search from happening, but it will protect your rights if you have to go to court.
  • Stay calm and in control of your words, body language and emotions.
  • Do not get into a confrontation with the police. If you complain at the scene, or tell the police they're wrong, do so in a non-confrontational way that will not intensify the scene.
  • Keep your hands where the police can see them at all times.
  • Don't run from cops.
  • Don't resist arrest even if you believe you are innocent.
  • Do not make statements regarding the incident in question, without your lawyer. If you are arrested, ask for a lawyer immediately.
  • Remember officers' badge numbers, patrol car numbers and physical descriptions.
  • If there are witnesses on the scence try to get their names and phone numbers.
  • If you are injured, take photos of the injuries as soon as possible, but be sure to get medical attention first. Ask for copies of your medical treatment files.

What to do if you're arrested or taken to a police station while on Cop Watch

Here's what you should do if you are arrested or taken to a police station while on Cop Watch patrol:

  • You have the right to remain silent and the right to speak to a lawyer before you talk to the police. Don't tell the police anything except your name and address. Don't give any explanations, excuses or stories. You can make your defense later, in court, based on what you and your lawyer decide is best.
  • If you have a lawyer, ask to see your lawyer immediately. If you cannot afford a lawyer you have the right to a free one once your case goes to court. You can ask the police to contact a lawyer. Do not say anything, sign anything, or make any decsions about your case until you have spoken to a lawyer.
  • Within a reasonable time after your arrest or booking, you should ask the police to contact a family member or friend. If you are permitted to make a call, anything you say at the precinct may be recorded or listened to. Never talk about the facts of your case over the phone.