Cop watching — the act of turning a camera on police — is not illegal.
But in areas policed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, it can still land you in jail.
And even when it's a bogus arrest and the fanciful charges against you are abruptly dropped the next day, it can be scary, expensive, time-consuming and, of course, intimidating.
That's what happened — twice — to Raven Williams, 28, whose dad was a New Orleans cop, and who today is an occasional participant in Cop Watch L.A., a little-known group of more than a dozen citizens determined to police the police.
Armed with her trusty camcorder and a well-thumbed paperback copy of the U.S. Constitution, Williams, who supports herself as an eBay seller, moved to L.A. four years ago. She started cop watching after reading about incidents of police abuse involving female sex workers. She was especially disturbed by an Oregon incident in which a cop demanded sex from women who otherwise faced arrest.
Armed with a detailed familiarity of police procedure, thanks to her upbringing, for two years she has cop-watched LAPD on Figueroa Avenue between 30th Street and 100th Street — more than 40 times without serious incident.
“For the most part, LAPD was cool about it,” she tells L.A. Weekly. “Most of them acted professionally and just went about their business when I started filming.”
Then on Feb. 1 she saw a traffic stop on Long Beach Boulevard near the Compton-Lynwood border. She walked within 50 feet of sheriff's deputies and began taping.
She kept detailed notes of what happened next: Deputy M. Weinstein, badge number 494469, asked who she was and what she was doing. “I told him, 'I'm a member of Cop Watch L.A. and I'm filming you,' ” Williams recalls.
Prominent Redondo Beach defense attorney Tony Capozzola tells the Weekly that under California law, Williams need not identify herself — unless she is driving a car or the officer has probable cause to believe she is committing a crime. And, he notes, “Filming the police is not illegal.”
That wasn't good enough for Deputy Weinstein, who, she says, demanded her name — something LAPD never did — and ordered her to move 100 feet away.
Williams pulled out her U.S. Constitution and calmly explained she didn't have to. That upset Weinstein, she says, who, she claims, pushed her. When she stood fast, he grabbed her camera and put his hands in her back pockets.
“I think he was looking for drugs,” she says. “And he kept demanding my name” — which Williams, who had no ID, refused.
Unnerved by his pushing and grabbing, she yelled, “Illegal arrest!” and was in fact arrested, handcuffed and put in a police cruiser. “Every time I asked him what was going on, he told me to shut up,” she says.
After a female deputy showed up, it appeared as if the two deputies could not imagine that this young, black woman was a gutsy citizen out observing cops. “She asked me if I had any rock. Then she put her hand down the front of my jeans and touched my vaginal area,” Williams alleges. “She also put her hands under my shirt. It was way beyond inappropriate.”
Williams was hauled to the bleak L.A. County Sheriff's Lynwood Detention Center and told she was under arrest for obstructing a police officer; she finally provided her name. The decision to jail her “was a power trip, to show me they could make me give my name.”
But things got much worse. She spent a hellish night in a cell with no bed, forced to sleep on a cold floor. “They kept the air-conditioning running full blast like they wanted to punish me,” she says.
The next morning, she was abruptly released. She tells the Weekly that when the jailers returned her belongings, her camcorder footage had been erased — an act that First Amendment attorneys say is illegal. It also violates department policy.
She was told the obstruction charge had been dropped and was handed a written citation for being “under the influence of a controlled substance.”
“I was in a state of shock from the way I was treated,” she says, denying she was under the influence and noting deputies failed to administer a blood or urine test.
The office of Sheriff Lee Baca has instituted what appears to be a blackout on comments about Raven Williams. Weinstein did not respond to several messages. Baca and his spokesman, Steve Whitmore, also did not respond to several messages.
The next day, Williams paid $70 for a drug test from a certified laboratory. Documents provided to the Weekly show she tested negative for everything from pot and speed to cocaine and PCP.
Two weeks later, undeterred, Williams replaced her camcorder with a less conspicuous cellphone camera and, in case her phone was confiscated or the footage erased, she bought a pair of $132 eyeglasses with a hidden camera.
Everything went fine until April 2, when Williams was cruising down Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown and spotted sheriff's deputies questioning several young Hispanic men. She kept a distance of 40 to 50 feet, and began recording.
This time Deputy Fernandez, badge number 509083, according to the citation issued later, demanded to know her name and what she was doing.
Fernandez acknowledged her right to record him, she says, but she refused to provide her name.
“He said I was required by law to tell him,” she says. “I asked him to cite the law, but he couldn't.” He arrested her for obstructing a police officer, then, with his cellphone, recorded her for 45 minutes.
He took Williams to the Lynwood Detention Center, where she spent another sleepless night and was released the next morning — with a citation for being under the influence of a controlled substance.
Incredibly to her, the Sheriff's Department again failed to administer a urine or blood test. So she got an immediate drug test, and tested negative.
Deputy Fernandez did not respond to messages seeking comment, but defense attorney Capozzola, who is not involved in Williams' case, says, “This sounds like an unlawful detention because there was no indication that she was committing any kind of a crime.”
Sgt. B. Waldo of the Sheriff's Century Station in Lynwood tells the Weekly the charges apparently have been dropped.
Williams says, “They just made up those charges to harass me and intimidate me from cop watching again.” She respects most police as public servants trying to do a job in a difficult environment. But, she says, there are some power-hungry officers who abuse their badges.
As to whether she'll ever monitor Sheriff Baca's camera-averse deputies again, she replies: “Of course. It's like dealing with a shark. If it bites you, but you love to surf, you have to go back in the water.”
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