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How Mobile Apps Can Combat Police Brutality

BY Jason Tashea | Friday, January 9 2015

"Film the police." (Steven Sweetleaf/Flickr)

The grand jury tasked with deciding whether to indict the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown heard 70 hours of testimony. The 60 witnesses and three medical examiners gave conflicting accounts about Brown’s last minutes. Ultimately, the grand jury opted not to indict. Their decision left many asking: What if there was a video? What if there was better oversight of police misconduct? Was Michael Brown a unique tragedy or part of a larger trend? The ACLU’s Mobile Justice App and Five-0 are technologies that will hopefully help answer these questions and protect communities from police misconduct.

Launched in November, ACLU Missouri’s Mobile Justice App is a civil rights attorney, evidence collector and homing beacon in one. Jeffrey Mittman, director of ACLU Missouri, says that the Mobile Justice App will empower communities that often feel a sense of resignation and defeat when it comes to interaction with the police. “Too often we see complaints of misconduct against the police fall apart in court because it’s the alleged victim’s word versus the police officer’s.”

While Congress debates funding for police body cameras, Mittman hopes the Mobile Justice App will improve citizens’ recourse with police now. Under the “Know Your Rights” tab, a user can access a simple list of rights and decisions one can make during a police confrontation. Users can record videos of their interactions with police, which are then immediately uploaded to the ACLU Missouri’s server for review and possible legal action. Already over 500 videos have been uploaded. The upload is to safeguard against illegal confiscation of phones or deletion of videos. Finally, the “Witness” feature informs others using the app that someone in their vicinity is witnessing or involved in a confrontation, thus drawing more eyewitnesses. Both the video and eyewitness feature are meant to bolster claims of misconduct in court.

There are concerns, however, about the real world limitations of this app. “There’s no clear training about [the app]; pulling a phone out around a cop could get people shot,” says Shauna Dillavou executive director of Community Red, a group promoting free speech and activism through technology. Mittman was quick to acknowledge the safety concern for users, which ACLU Missouri explains to their protest monitors.

Dillavou also thinks the app falls short in organizing activists. “The [Mobile Justice App] doesn’t collect the data or images to change the message around police misconduct.” The need for messaging and a broader conversation is what drove three Atlanta teens to create Five-0, a national venue for police and civilians to come together and talk. “Our movement is Partnership Policing,” says Asha and Ima Christian, two of the three siblings who created Five-0 last summer. Five-0, as opposed to the Mobile Justice App, accomplishes both community-wide data collection and reporting, and creates a platform for users to have an earnest discussion about police interactions. Asha admits, however, that the reporting component is the most used.

With Five-0, users can access the “Know Your Rights” information and create an incident report like on the ACLU’s app. Five-0 differentiates itself by promoting a conversation about policing. “We want the community to talk to each other, [the app] let’s people in the neighborhood know what’s going on.” This is critical to understand, Ima Christian explains by example, if Eric Garner’s death was an isolated tragedy or related to a chronic problem. By acknowledging trends, Asha Christian argues, activists will be better armed to tackle systemic problems.

For the three siblings, this project is as much communal as it is personal. “We have family members that had negative interactions with police,” Asha Christian continued, “Most of them didn’t want to follow up with the police. The one time they did there was no resolution… We want to empower people.” Now, the siblings say, family and friends that previously shrugged their shoulders at a negative interaction with the police feel as if they have recourse and that their interaction, whether good or bad, will be, at a minimum, a useful data point to show policing trends in their community.

With already 12,000 downloads and 6,000 active users, Five-0 is looking to improve user experience. Similar to the ACLU app, Five-0 plans to create an emergency button, so during an interaction with the police the user can immediately send a text to a list of contacts with GPS coordinates. They also want to improve police involvement on the app. Currently, the police can respond on Five-0’s message boards; however, starting in 2015, Five-0 will launch in eight American cities with police departments as partners to improve dialogue and efficacy in their communities. Asha Christian believes that fostering this dialogue will improve police-community relations. “What we’re doing is less expensive than body-cams, and just as far reaching.”

Jason Tashea is a is a criminal law and legal tech consultant and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @jtashea.