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French Interior Minister Moves to Block 'CopWatch' Site

BY Nick Judd | Monday, October 3 2011

France's interior minister is seeking to block a website dedicated to monitoring police activity, France 24 reports:

Interior Minister Claude Gueant has filed a legal motion to block a new police-monitoring website that has enraged law-enforcement officers in France. Gueant took specific aim at the site’s database, which reveals the names, photos – and sometimes political affiliations – of around 450 policemen from the regions of Paris, Calais and Lille.

In a statement published on Friday, the interior minister said the online publication of policemen’s names, photos and sometimes addresses “harms the personnel of the interior ministry and jeopardizes their and their families’ safety". His view was strongly echoed by the National Police Alliance (APN), a right-wing police union that also decried the “anti-cop initiative” as "hateful and slanderous".

Maintainers of the site, Copwatch Nord IDF, post photos and eyewitness accounts of what the site maintainers purport to be are incidents of bad police behavior, alleging wrongdoing as varied as drinking on the job to using excessive force. The site also devotes pages to showing faces of people the maintainers identify as plainclothes police.

This move by Gueant speaks to a growing friction relating to surveillance between police and the citizens they serve. In New York City, for example, an obscure statute prohibits gatherings of people in masks — something we found out recently about when that statute was cited as police arrested masked protesters from the Occupy Wall Street action in Lower Manhattan. Wearing masks in some cases stems from a lack of trust in law enforcement to respect the privacy and freedom of speech of political dissenters — especially in the Internet age, in a year where the New York Police Department has launched a unit to monitor social media for evidence of criminal activity.

That mistrust is mutual. Elsewhere in New York State, and indeed around the country, there have been incidents of members of law enforcement arresting people who tried to document police activity on video. In the case of one such arrest — Rochester, N.Y. woman Emily Good, arrested after videotaping a traffic stop from her front yard — the charges were later dropped and police officials admitted Good shouldn't have been arrested in the first place.

On the citizen side of that equation, protesters and allies have new tools to fight for control of evidence about what goes on when everyday folks and law enforcement officers encounter one another. Using helium balloons, a Flip camera or 3G iPhone, some string and a cut-up soda bottle, for example, it's possible to keep an eye in the sky hundreds of feet above a protest — streaming live video the entire time, if you're using a 3G-enabled device. This can resolve disputes about crowd size, location, and who went where; our friend Felipe Heusser regularly sent us video and photos pulled together in this way from student demonstrations in Chile from earlier this summer. And there are more human-scale tools, like OpenWatch, a website that collects, anonymizes and posts encounters with police that have been surreptitiously recorded with a related mobile application. The mobile app, once turned on, runs in the background on a mobile phone without leaving any obvious clues that it's capturing video or audio.

The police have adapted as well. For instance, check out this video of footage compiled during Occupy Wall Street's ill-fated Saturday march across the Brooklyn Bridge here in New York. In the background of nearly every frame involving police? Someone in a New York Police Department jacket, videotaping the protesters even as the protesters are videotaping them.

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