This Article explores the phenomenon of organized copwatching—groups of local residents who wear uniforms, carry visible recording devices, patrol neighborhoods, and film police- citizen interactions in an effort to hold police departments accountable to the populations they police. The Article argues that the practice of copwatching illustrates both the promise of adversarialism as a form of civic engagement and the potential of traditionally powerless populations to contribute to constitutional norms governing police conduct. Organized copwatching serves a unique function in the world of police accountability by giving these populations a vehicle through which to have direct, real-time input into policing decisions that affect their neighborhoods.
Many scholars recognize that a lack of public participation is a barrier to true police accountability. When searching for solutions these same scholars often focus on studying and perfecting consensus-based methods of participation such as community policing, and neglect the study of more adversarial, confrontational forms of local participation in policing. By analyzing copwatching as a form of public participation, this Article challenges the scholarly focus on consensus-based strategies of police accountability. The Article urges scholars and reformers to take adversarial, bottom-up mechanisms of police accountability seriously—not just as protest, but as true participation. Doing so requires respecting observation and contestation as legitimate civic gestures worthy of protection.