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Ottawa volunteer group keeps eye on police conduct

Watching the watchers

OBSERVERS. Andrew Nellis, a Copwatch volunteer, says when he's on duty, he acts as a witness in altercations between police and the city's homeless. Credit: Neil McKinnon

Not all activist groups spend their time going to open houses to present their ideas to city officials.

Copwatch, for one, doesn’t.

There are 10 Copwatch volunteers in the Ottawa area. It is a network that “polices the police,” says volunteer Andrew Nellis, 39.

The first group to call itself Copwatch was formed in 1990 in Berkeley, California. The idea of copwatching was developed by the Black Panthers to ensure police accountability within poor African American neighbourhoods. Volunteers followed police patrols and intervened when they thought police were too aggressive, intimidating or abusive.

In Ottawa, Copwatch patrols the city, usually looking out for the homeless.

“This is not a symbolic action. This is direct action. We intervene. We act as a buffer between police and their victims,” says Nellis.

Copwatch volunteers stress that they are not social workers: they are merely observers, making sure that police treat people fairly. They work in pairs and, on this particular day, Nellis is accompanied by 27-year-old volunteer Fred Maack.

Starting in the Byward Market area, walking up Elgin St and over to Bank St, Nellis and Maack ask homeless people and panhandlers questions like “Have the cops been giving you a hard time?”

Jeff is a 32-year-old resident of the Ottawa Mission. He says that he witnesses police officers harassing people on a regular basis, mostly homeless people. 

Roger also lives at the Mission.

“[Police officers] tell you to leave or they’ll give you a fine. If you’re poor, you can’t afford to pay these fines. What [police officers] are doing is wasting their time picking on [panhandlers] instead of going after people selling crack,” says Roger.

Roger says police have doled out fines to him, ranging from $65 to $125 each, for panhandling, but he has yet to pay them because he has no money.

One woman named Bear says, “It’s hard watching the police beat up on someone around here.”

Bear says police have also given her tickets, but she hasn’t paid them either.

“[Police] get aggressive. They get right in your face and start swearing. They’re intimidating,” says Bear, who uses a walker to get around town.

All Copwatch is doing is having an independent person document and testify for the judicial process, says anti-poverty activist and Copwatch volunteer Jane Scharf.

“If someone from the community at large believed there is no reason to watch police, then they should just see us as observers. If police don’t do anything wrong, why would they have a problem?” says Scharf.


If you’re looking for more information, or want to volunteer, contact the Exile Infoshop (256 Bank St) at (613) 237-9270.