For years, videos have been floating around the internet exposing police officers in every way possible.
While there are many different viewpoints surrounding the actions of the police force, students at Keene State College in particular are being thrust into an entirely separate situation with the implementation of CopBlock every Friday and Saturday night.
CopBlock, according to member Ian Freeman, is a “decentralized organization—meaning nobody’s in charge of anybody else—that exists worldwide.”
Freeman noted that holding police accountable for their actions is their main focus, hoping to expose police officers who target people for “victimless crimes,” such as open container violations or possession of marijuana.
CopBlockers expose these police officers by video-taping their interactions with the people they are targeting and then placing the videos online for the public to see.
“A primary sort of weapon we use against the police is the video camera,” Freeman explained, “Police accountability is the focus of CopBlock, and the best way to hold them accountable, we’ve found, is through the public’s eye.”
A KSC junior was ticketed for one of these “victimless” crimes on one of her first weekends back in Keene, being charged with an open container violation.
The student, whose name is withheld for privacy reasons, was stopped by police after walking down Davis St. and arriving at her friend’s house.
After being asked to follow the police officer to the cruiser several feet away, a CopBlocker arrived at the scene.
“This is when I noticed the CopBlock guy approaching the scene, as another cruiser was also approaching. Because I am twenty-one, the officer explained to me that I was getting a citation for ‘open container of an alcoholic beverage in a public place.’ This is when I heard the CopBlocker say that I should fight it in court—that he would testify that I was on private property when the officer approached me,” the student said.
The student, however, was not as grateful for the CopBlocker’s presence as the CopBlocker may have thought.
“I was pretty humiliated and nervous to begin with, and the CopBlocker really wasn’t making me feel any better about the situation,” the student said.
“As I was standing there trying to make the best of what clearly was ruining the rest of my night, I heard the CopBlocker comment to his camera that this was the reason why the crime rate in Keene was so high,” the student said.
The student continued, “If he thought the police were committing an injustice against me, I really wanted to ask him if he was willing to pay my fine seeing as he had so much to say about it.”
Freeman himself stated that unless a civilian is being visibly harassed by an officer, he will usually ask the civilian [or in this case, student] if they feel comfortable with him recording their interaction.
However, Freeman noted that, “Not everyone does the same thing—it’s a decentralized group; I’m not in control of what everyone else does, I can’t control who calls themselves CopBlock. I can only control how I behave. And I try to be respectful of that.”
The KSC student who was filmed acknowledged the CopBlockers’ desire to educate people on their rights, but now understood first-hand that when thrown into an actual altercation with the police, opinions change rapidly.
The KSC student with experience with CopBlock said, “I think that they really do want to be helpful, especially to those who have never interacted with the police. In my case, I really just wanted him to go away. Now, not only do I have a dent in my bank account to remind me of the incident, but some stranger has my whole interaction on camera and that makes me uncomfortable knowing that the encounter will be forever documented. All I can be thankful for is that the police ignored him for the most part and that his words [or]actions didn’t reflect on me,” the student said.
Freeman explained that with such a large part of CopBlock’s mission being to make the public aware of their rights, KSC students in particular tend to be approached more.
“Keene CopBlock is, I think, a lot on the college area, simply because there’s always a new group of people coming in here every year, many of whom don’t know their rights. They’re fresh out of high school. They’ve been in school and in school, the attitude is, ‘The police are your friends, you need to talk to the police and be very obedient.’ And that attitude is going to get you in trouble,” Freeman said.
An example of an interaction with a CopBlocker that Freeman explained, “A CopBlocker might reach out and say ‘Hey, that’s not right, what you’re doing is wrong, please leave these people alone. Who has she harmed? Where’s the victim?’ And let people know that what the police are doing is not acceptable.”
Freeman continued, “Because if people are to let them know how wrong they are and how unneighborly what they’re doing is, maybe eventually they’ll cut it out.”
Director of Campus Safety Amanda Guthorn acknowledged CopBlock’s movement around the city of Keene.
However, Guthorn made a point to note that the students have different rights and restrictions on-campus versus off-campus.
“Their [CopBlock’s] goal, I believe, is to educate the students as to what their rights are. However, our campus policies do require [different actions], they don’t have to identify themselves and those types of things [off-campus],” Guthorn said.
She continued, “So, if the students choose to listen to that, that’s fine in terms of their constitutional rights, but as a member of this community, as an enrolled student, they’re required to [identify themselves].”
Guthorn expressed her concern for students’ interactions with the police versus interactions with Campus Safety.
“I think the officers are concerned when they (CopBlock) tell the students, ‘Don’t show your ID,’ and all that, because they give them misinformation about what their responsibilities are on campus,” Guthorn stated.
“The officers get frustrated and I say, ‘You know—the students have the ultimate decision about whether they choose to comply or not to comply. They’re smart individuals and they need to make those decisions for themselves,’” Guthorn said.
As Guthorn pulled out her pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution, she explained how crucial it is students realize that Keene State has its own rules and regulations.
“It’s also an educational opportunity on our part to say that is true, if you’re walking city streets you don’t have to show your ID, but if you’re a member of this community or any place—college or university—there’s policies that pertain to you that you have to be familiar with,” Guthorn said.
In regard to CopBlockers’ interactions with police officers and Campus Safety officials themselves, Guthorn recognized that they’re public figures and have to be ready for such exposure.
“You don’t have to agree with somebody’s position in order to get along with them. They believe in the rights entitled to them under the [U.S.] Constitution, as we should. And it’s their right and privilege to exercise them, but they need to exercise them in a manner that doesn’t interrupt the daily business of others,” Guthorn said.
Nationwide, CopBlock’s Facebook page recently reached one-million likes—making the organization more popular than many police-oriented Facebook pages, according to Freeman.
“It’s unfortunate, but there’s no shortage of bad-police videos,” Freeman stated.
Freeman explained that on the Keene CopBlock website, all police officers in the Keene Police Department are listed, with contact information as well as photos to help people identify who they’re dealing with.
“The police keep files on you and I, so why shouldn’t we have information about them? And the purpose for that is for accountability. Who are these people? Who is that officer that ticketed you?,” Freeman said.
While the Keene Police Department was not available to provide their own input on CopBlock, both Freeman and Guthorn suggested that the filming of their encounters is not anything they’re not trained for and familiar with.
According to Freeman, there are numerous videos on CopBlock.org that display civilians’ encounters with the police force.
These videos, Freeman detailed, range from police officers harassing civilians, to ride-alongs in which the police side against the very system they are a part of.
“And that’s what the camera can allow for,” Freeman said, “Put your camera footage up on YouTube and then everyone can see how the police are behaving. If they’re behaving in a professional manner and they’re only going after real criminals, then I support them.”
Freeman continued, “If the police are going after college students for an open container violation, then I don’t support them. I don’t support them picking on people who haven’t hurt anybody else.”
“The Keene Police are well-trained for cameras. We’ve been doing it for years in Keene, they’re familiar with CopBlock, they know we’re here and they know what we’re about, so they’re usually pretty respectful of us,” Freeman said.
Freeman left off emphasizing the importance of police accountability and how crucial it is for anyone to know the rights entitled to them.
Freeman said, “A CopBlocker can’t be there every time the police are behaving badly. It’s your responsibility to protect yourself and the best thing you can do is record your interaction. I’ve seen cameras change how a police-encounter goes more times than I can count. And usually changes it for the better.”
He continued, “That’s all it takes—to have a concern for the people around you. And trying to create an environment where the police behave better, hopefully, and that fewer people get hurt, and fewer peaceful people will get arrested.”
Alexa Ondreicka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org