SOUTH BRONX — The patrols scour the South Bronx streets at night, led by tips to high-activity areas, hoping to catch their targets in action.
But they are not cops. Instead, they're self-appointed police monitors, armed only with handheld cameras.
Their focus is stop-and-frisk, the police tactic that a federal judge ruled last month has violated the constitutional rights of thousands of minorities who were stopped without sufficient reason — a ruling the city is appealing.
Over the past year, these so-called cop watchers have expanded their operations in several South Bronx precincts, where they say they want to pressure police to respect residents' rights.
“If this system and this state won’t make [police] accountable,” said Jose LaSalle, an activist and founder of the CopWatch Patrol Unit, “then we will.”
The watchers include formal groups such as LaSalle’s and the Justice Committee — a police-reform organization that is hosting a cop-watch conference this weekend in Hunts Point — as well as individuals who have been trained in police recording.
Justice Committee’s eight-person units have patrolled a few South Bronx precincts — mainly 40, 41 and 42 — about twice a month since the spring, according to organizer Riko Guzman.
Composed mostly of local residents, the all-volunteer group heads to areas they have been told are “hot” with police activity.
Along the way, they talk to fellow residents and pass out fliers explaining the rights of people stopped by police, including the rights to refuse to answer questions or consent to a search.
If the group spots police stopping or arresting someone, it splits in two: one unit stands about 10 to 20 feet from the action and films, while a backup unit records both the main police activity and any interaction between the front unit and officers.
The group provides the footage to people who want it for court, but the more pressing purpose is to ensure that police stops are conducted legally on the street, Guzman said.
"We're not anti-police," Guzman explained. "What we're demanding is that, if you're going to do what you do, just make sure it's on legal grounds."
Abdul Malik, founder of a Mott Haven-based youth program known as FUSED, took a cop-watch training course, then began filming police stops on his own as a way to document the aggressive policing that he says his young clients routinely encounter.
But the recordings are also a tool to talk with the teens about how to properly interact with police and how to lower their odds of being stopped — most importantly, he said, by obeying the law.
“The camera tells us a true story,” Malik said. “It keeps people honest.”
LaSalle, the CopWatch founder and a strident stop-and-frisk critic, is the stepfather of a Harlem teen whose secret audio recording of a 2011 police stop drew national attention because of the apparent threats and profanities that officers hurled at the young man.
His CopWatch Patrol Unit, or CPU, includes roughly 20 members who have conducted patrols in every borough.
On patrols, LaSalle can blur the boundary between observer and participant.
He usually commentates while recording, which includes repeatedly questioning officers about their reasons for stopping people. He has been issued several summonses during these interactions, though they have all been tossed out in court, he said.
LaSalle claims that while recording he has been harassed by several officers, against whom he has filed formal complaints. Some of the cop-watch videos he posts on YouTube show officers forcing him to move and shining bright lights toward his camera.
But the videos also capture LaSalle and members of his group calling officers cowards, murderers, traitors and other insults.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
However, the 40th Precinct’s commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack, briefly addressed the issue after LaSalle accused officers from that precinct of harassment at a community meeting earlier this month.
McCormack said he couldn’t discuss individual cases that were before the Civilian Complaint Review Board, but that he often reviews rules for proper conduct with his officers at morning roll call.
He added that it's “their right” to record police, and that he welcomes extra eyes and ears on the street.
“I want civilians watching for us to [help] stop crimes,” McCormack said.