For well over a century, Americans have been watching and criticizing domestic law enforcement in a variety of ways. It only takes a quick look at any prevalent newspaper archive to find critical articles about police officers dating back to the late 19th century. In the last decade, though, there has been a major uptick in civilian monitoring of law enforcement agencies. Rather than relying on traditional media outlets, many young adults tune into the work of anti-policing activists on social media who post videos discussing or depicting police brutality in America. Many of these activists are part of a larger movement called “cop-watching.”
Cop-watching refers to the organized observation of local law enforcement by members of the community in which they operate. Some towns and cities in the United States have local cop-watching chapters, but other cop-watchers operate individually by recording police interactions and bringing attention, usually through social media, to possible scenarios of police brutality or corruption. Cop-watchers’ ultimate goal is to increase law enforcement accountability and to govern local police, even informally.
The first copwatching groups popped up in the 1990s, so this is not an entirely new phenomenon. However, the increased use of social media by these groups has sparked a wave of anti-cop-watching legislation across the country. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is generally understood to protect a person’s right to film and record law enforcement, but some states have been passing laws that limit this right without actually violating the First Amendment. Anti-cop-watching statutes are typically not blatantly referred to as anti-cop-watching, but their language can be used to criminalize the act of recording police officers. In states like Pennsylvania and Maryland, for example, the law allows citizens to film police officers in public places, but it requires consent from all parties being filmed, including the police officers.
In the State of Indiana, Indiana Code § 35-44.1-2-14, enacted in 2023, states that any person must not be within 25 feet of a police officer conducting official duties if the police officer has told them to step back. The statute is dressed up as an anti-interference law that is meant to prevent bystanders from impeding police action. On its face, the statute seems fairly neutral, but in practice, it can allow officers to keep bystanders too far away from the action to effectively record or document law enforcement interactions with the public. Similar laws have been passed in Arizona, Texas, and Oklahoma in the last couple of years. Members of the public fear that these laws will reduce police accountability and, therefore, result in more cases of police brutality or misconduct.
Because the First Amendment has historically been understood to protect the public’s ability to record police interactions, it is possible that these new laws will be struck down in due time. An Arizona statute limiting the recording of police has already been struck down in a federal court this past summer. Another court case was filed against the City of South Bend, Ind., after a known cop-watcher, Donald Nicodemus, was prevented from filming a police encounter due to officers’ use of the 25-foot statute. In this case, South Bend police officers were using Indiana Code § 35-44.1-2-14 to repeatedly push Nicodemus back by having police officers stand further and further from the scene, thereby extending the radius Nicodemus couldn’t enter. Nicodemus has the Indiana ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) backing him, and his case is set to be heard by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana this October.
It is likely that more states will begin to enact legislation mimicking that of Indiana and Arizona. As more restrictions are placed on the recording of police, people like Nicodemus will become even more crucial to ensuring police accountability because, as history has shown, the police cannot effectively police themselves. While the animosity between cops and cop-watchers is inherent to their two occupations, the advent of these laws still demonstrates the tired irony of police power. Rather than accepting accountability and working to improve law enforcement practices, police departments across the country are pushing for more restrictions on civilians’ rights to monitor them. In doing so, they are resisting the legal accountability that their entire existence is meant to enforce.