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I-Witness: Government Response to Inverse Surveillance

The I-Witness Video collective was formed in 2000 by citizens concerned over what they believed to be more aggressive forms of policing at public demonstrations, according to founding member, community activist, and self-described forensic video analyst Eileen Clancy: “Basically individuals started to see police attacks at demonstrations, a lot of arrests, seemingly without cause, and we knew that there were a lot of video cameras out on the streets. But it seemed that the video never got to the lawyers.”9 The group’s goal was to find ways to collect video about police actions and ensure that these made it to lawyers defending those arrested under false pretenses. The distributed monitoring of public demonstrations was already taking place, thanks to the proliferation of relatively inexpensive video cameras—but there was no system for assembling or coordinating the monitoring to hold authorities accountable. The group not only recruited amateur videographers and coordinated their activity but also served as a clearinghouse for anyone with video evidence relevant to charges of police misconduct or abuse. The group’s philosophy is to defend public space for public dissent and expression by ensuring that authorities are held accountable for violations of civil rights. As the group’s website puts it, “I-Witness Video uses video to protect civil liberties. We probe police actions at First Amendment events.”10 Members of the collective devote their energies to filming police activity at public events and demonstrations where protest activity is anticipated.

I-Witness Video played an important role in defending people arrested at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. In one instance, a man who was being held on bail of a half-million dollars was released and charges dismissed after a video supplied by I-Witness revealed that the officer who had claimed to observe his activity was in a completely different location from the accused at the time when he was arrested. The case demonstrated the power of the technology as an electronic witness: “The most important thing, in case anybody wants to do any of this, is to have the clock on your camera set at the right time, because if there’s a police misstatement or there is confusion about when something happened, that’s very potent evidence.”11

Through its partnership with the National Lawyers Guild, the group works with defense lawyers to search for video relevant to the cases of individual defendants. This means hours spent poring over video in order to find footage of defendants and police involved in pending trials. It also means that the sworn statements of police officers can be matched to the video record more systematically than ever before: a form of accountability to which police officers are perhaps not yet accustomed. Even members of I-Witness were surprised by the results, according to Clancy: “What we learned was, it turned out, that much more than we would have imagined, the police were lying in their sworn affidavits about the charges.”12

One of the results of I-Witness’s activism has been to shine a light on what seem to be a relatively routine practice, at least with mass arrests at public demonstrations: police officers filling out false reports as they process arrests. After the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan, during which the New York City Police Department proved particularly aggressive in arresting and detaining protestors and bystanders, I-Witness video records were responsible for acquittals or the dismissal of charges in cases involving about 400 of the 1,800 people arrested.13 In almost one in four cases, in other words, it turned out that there were inconsistencies or falsehoods in the police statements. And those were just the cases for which I-Witness was able to discover video related to the arrests. In one case, I-Witness’s Clancy discovered that a police videotape had been altered before being submitted as evidence. The edited tape omitted scenes that contradicted the police report, which accused the defendant of ramming police with a bicycle and resisting arrest. As The New York Times reported, the “police videotape had been altered to remove sections showing Mr. Dunlop’s [the defendant’s] pre-arrest behavior, which did not include the violence a police officer had described under oath. After Ms. Clancy found an unedited videotape that showed Mr. Dunlop strolling calmly and then being arrested without a struggle, the district attorney’s office dropped the case against him.”14 In another case, charges against a group of demonstrators holding a banner in front of the New York Public Library were dropped after video evidence contradicted a police report accusing demonstrators of blocking traffic. The video showed that they weren’t even in the street.15 Yet another false police report accused one defendant of resisting arrest and having to be carried away by four officers when the video clearly showed him walking “down the steps under his own power, and that the officer who testified against him had no role in his arrest.”16 The officer in question provided detailed testimony about the arrest— “We picked him up and we carried him while he squirmed and screamed . . . I had one of his legs because he was kicking and refusing to walk on his own”— even though he was nowhere to be seen in the videotape of the arrest.17

What emerged in the aftermath of I-Witness’s activities was a pattern: a division of labor in which officers who weren’t involved in arrests were routinely filling out false complaints. The process amounted to the production of false reports to provide after-the-fact justification for aggressive policing and intimidation. As The New York Times put it, “Dozens of complaints were sworn by police officers who said they had witnessed people violating the law . . . but later admitted under oath that their only involvement was to process the arrests, and that they had not actually seen the disorderly conduct that was charged.”18 Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were no prosecutions of police officers who filled out false statements or perjured themselves when they lied under oath. The only response to a clear pattern of police abuse was a letter written by an assistant district attorney to the New York City Police Department “to stress the importance of officers’ not swearing to things they had not seen themselves. The prosecutors said the confusion surrounding mass arrests made it hard to bring perjury charges.”19

More recent evidence circulated—at least originally—by the Glass Bead Collective, a New York-based group of video artists and activists that has collaborated with I-Witness, indicates that the NYPD may not have taken the district attorney’s message to heart.20 During one of the regular and heavily policed Critical Mass group bike rides in downtown Manhattan, a police officer arrested one of the riders for allegedly attacking him with a bike by riding directly into him. A mobile phone video taken by a tourist and circulated by activists at Time’s Up and the Glass Bead Collective, however, revealed the officer’s account to be fabricated: the video clearly shows the rider veering to avoid the officer who first gets in his path and then violently pushes him off the bike. The New York Times, once again, noted the inconsistencies in the officer’s account: “The officer said he was knocked to the ground by Mr. Long. Throughout the tape, though, he remains on his feet, even after banging into Mr. Long. The police officer wrote that Mr. Long had been ‘weaving’ in and out of traffic, ‘thereby forcing multiple vehicles to stop abruptly or change their direction in order to avoid hitting’ Mr. Long. However, in the videotape, it appears that there are no cars on the street.”21 The amateur video went viral on YouTube, receiving more than 400,000 views only days after the incident and leading to public criticism of the arrest by both the mayor and the police commissioner. The officer ended up resigning from the police force.

The result of these acts of inverse surveillance by both I-Witness Video and the Glass Bead Collective was to reveal a clear pattern of abuse of power facilitated by what authorities perceived as their monopoly over the official story. As The New York Times put it, with perhaps a sense of premature triumph, “The availability of cheap digital technology—video cameras, digital cameras, cellphone cameras—has ended a monopoly on the history of public gatherings that was limited to the official narratives, like the sworn documents created by police officers and prosecutors.”22 Beyond some relatively brief media coverage and the letter from the district attorney’s office amid revelations about what seemed to be the standard practice of concocting reports to legitimize mass arrest, however, there was little in the way of response or reform. But police made it clear that they were not going to succumb to a new regime of citizen monitoring without a fight, as the events of the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul demonstrated. Apparently forewarned about the activities of I-Witness and the Glass Bead Collective, the St. Paul police took preemptive action prior to the convention, detaining members of the Glass Bead Collective, searching them, and confiscating their equipment after they passed near a railroad track bordering the street on their way home late one evening. The police used the fact that members of the collective were near the track late at night to detain them on “homeland security”—related matters—questioning them about what they would be reporting on and refusing to provide them with a receipt for confiscated items.23 Police held the items and returned them after 24 hours, perhaps in response to mainstream media coverage of the detention and the group’s accusations of police harassment.

Despite the harassment, members of the Glass Bead Collective were able to get some footage of aggressive treatment of video activists, including the forced entry into a home where members of I-Witness were meeting. Police surrounded the house, claiming they had a warrant to search the house for, among other things, “packages and contents, firearms and ammunition, holsters, cleaning equipment for firearms, [and] weapons devices.”24 When members refused to allow the police entry because the warrant was for a different address, police entered forcibly, detained and searched members of I-Witness and their equipment. Four days later, police surrounded an office building where I-Witness had rented space, claiming they had received a report from an undercover officer that anarchists were holding hostages in the office. A lawyer from the National Lawyers Guild was able to convince police that they were mistaken, but it was a charge that could have allowed forcible entry and violent response by police.25

The incidents in St. Paul revealed two things: first, that police were monitoring video activists—many of whom were videotaped by police during detentions, presumably to facilitate identification in the future—and second, that police were developing strategies for harassing those who monitor them by detaining them and confiscating their equipment preemptively. Monitoring, in other words, is not necessarily a counterforce to state authority—even in social contacts in which public accountability is a civic expectation. The harassment of video activists received minimal mainstream media coverage—largely in the local press, although reports were circulated widely by independent and alternative media. Perhaps not surprisingly, the apparent antidote to police harassment of video monitors was more monitoring: the videotaping of police detaining members of I-Witness by other video activists and reporting on the detention and search by the alternative news outlet Democracy Now!

Police harassment was not the only challenge posed to inverse surveillance as a form of political activism. In 2007, New York City proposed changes to city rules that “would have required any group of two or more people using a camera in a public location for more than half an hour, and any group of five or more people using a tripod for more than 10 minutes, to get a permit and [$1 million in liability] insurance.”26 Although the changes were prompted by the actions of a documentary filmmaker, the rule had obvious implications for groups like I-Witness Video and the Glass Bead Collective, which may have been barred from documenting public demonstrations without permits or costly insurance. After public protest from a number of quarters, the city backed away from the proposed changes—but they are suggestive insofar as they reveal the type of controls deemed desirable by authorities in an era of increased public access to relatively inexpensive video equipment.

Finally, it is worth noting one more response by New York City to the success of I-Witness in holding police accountable for arrests during the 2004 Republican National Convention: ongoing attempts to gain access to the group’s video archive. After previous, unsuccessful attempts, the city argued in 2008 that it needed to access I-Witness’s videos in order to determine whether it may contain any tapes that the city had lost. The attempt pitted city lawyers interested in gaining access to the video record compiled by I-Witness—perhaps because it might help them to determine which cases to prosecute or to identify activists or other possible targets for police investigation—against a district attorney’s office that did not want to admit to misplacing evidence. As an account in The New York Times put it, “Such statements would seem to cast the district attorney’s office in an unenviable light. Few prosecutors would relish the idea that they might have lost track of videotapes or displayed a cavalier attitude toward maintaining the integrity of evidence.”27

Nevertheless, city lawyers pressed their case, claiming that they needed access to the archive in order to defend themselves against six hundred claims of unjust arrest and detention during the convention. But lawyers for the city have said that the tapes they possess provide only a glimpse of the turbulent events surrounding the convention. As the city law department put it, “These undisclosed tapes are of critical importance to many disputed issues in these case . . . We need to verify the source of those tapes and want to ensure that all videos are available to all parties in this complex litigation.”28 To date, the requests to gain access to the archives of I-Witness, which is not party to any lawsuits against the city, have been unsuccessful, but they highlight another response of authorities to inverse surveillance: the attempt to access activist archives for the purposes of law enforcement and intelligence gathering. The logic at work is a familiar one to neoliberal regimes reliant on outsourcing of government functions—in this case, what might be described as the crowd-sourcing of public surveillance. Just as intelligence agencies are interested in exploiting databases gathered for other purposes (market research, library records, or video rentals), they are also interested in tapping into activist data, which, to the extent they are centralized and searchable, become a double-edged sword.

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