“It’s already being bootlegged on the street in Cincinnati,” says videomaker Jacob Crawford about his documentary These Streets Are Watching. You might be able to say that about Starsky & Hutch too — but that Hollywood time-waster isn’t focusing the same kind of attention on the local police department as Crawford’s film.
Suddenly, twelve years after Rodney King, cops are in the spotlight like never before. The doc, produced and directed by Crawford in cooperation with the police-watchdog organization Copwatch, takes us out on patrol with Copwatch “observers,” armed with video cameras, in three American cities — sort of the flipside of an episode of Cops. The most vivid action takes place in Cincinnati, where the killing of a man named Timothy Thomas in 2001 ignited broad resentment against police tactics. In Denver, the issue was selective harassment of Cinco de Mayo celebrants. And in Berkeley, where we hear from veteran Copwatcher Andrea Prichett, the officers all know the drill: the carefully worded back-and-forth brinkmanship of trying to “control the street” while being officially observed by people who know their rights. That can turn even a routine roust into a UN debate.
For the Oakland-based Crawford, holding police accountable and standing up for civil rights is not such a radical concept: “It’s very patriotic. How much more practical can you get? We’re not photographing them from the top of a building; we’re right there in front of them. To me, this is what it means to be an American.” The East Bay leads the way. Notes Crawford: “In Berkeley, the struggle for police accountability is a legacy. We’ve been around thirteen years. In Cincinnati, on the other hand, it’s a last-resort situation, in a place where the tradition of racism is very, very rich. Copwatch there represents a key empowerment tool.” Surprisingly enough, Crawford says he hasn’t yet gotten much feedback from the cops he recorded. “Mostly they just say, ‘I don’t want to be in the movie.'” But there they are. These Streets Are Watching screens Tuesday, March 23, 9:15 p.m., at the Parkway Theatre in Oakland. $5. For more info: 510-814-2400.