New app aims to help citizens record police brutality using cellphones
But the question of who should carry them – whether police officers or civilians – and why remains unresolved. A government rush to arm law enforcement officers with body cameras is being matched by citizens’ routine use of cellphone video cameras during both protests and police interactions.
To help give ordinary citizens institutional and legal backing , the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has slowly been rolling out a Mobile Justice App for Android and iPhones over the last few months, specifically designed for citizens to film interactions between themselves and police.
For Justin Hansford, a 33-year-old law professor at the St Louis University School of Law, growing up black in America meant regular harassment, humiliation and being stopped for little to no reason while driving by police, he said.
It’s a set of negative experiences that were the norm for him and his fellow African Americans, he said, but the extremity of the interactions were such that they were sometimes difficult to convey to a broader public, that was either inclined to believe, or hopeful the claims were false.
Cellphone video footage is changing this.
“We’re accused of making things up. But we don’t have to make up stories. Now we just have to get the video. That’s enough,” Hansford says.
Last month, a cellphone video shot by a passerby recorded the fatal shooting of unarmed black man Walter Scott at the hands of South Carolina police officer Michael Slager. The video contradicted the incident’s police report and helped charge Slager on a first-degree murder count.
The ACLU Mobile Justice App hopes to take citizen video one step further. The app connects mobile phones directly to citizens’ local ACLU chapter, and to their team of lawyers.
Users can immediately send footage to the ACLU with a single shake of their phones. Received videos are systematically reviewed and screened for potential legal action by ACLU staff. This means users don’t risk losing footage if their phones are confiscated or destroyed by police, Jennifer Carnig with the ACLU’s New York chapter, the NYCLU, said.
The Mobile Justice App, which launched last November and has so far been adopted by ACLU chapters in Missouri, Mississippi, California, Nebraska and Oregon, was based on the success of a Stop and Frisk App, launched by the NYCLU in 2012 to tackle stop-and-frisk interactions.
Despite the fall in logged stop-and-frisk incidents in the city, the New York app has been downloaded 35,000 times and 40,000 videos have been submitted – all of which were reviewed by ACLU staff, Carnig said.
The newer ACLU app also enables users to see if they are close to another user either experiencing or witnessing a police-citizen interaction.
The app has not yet led to any need for specific legal action by the ACLU.
“We haven’t had a Rodney King incident,” Carnig says referring to the capturing on video of taxi driver Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers, whose acquittals are credited with causing the 1992 LA riots.
“But we have seen many videos that served to confirm anecdotal evidence of intimidation, disrespectful words, people being roughed up. All of those types of police interactions are violent interactions.”
So far, the app has been downloaded just under 9,000 times on Android, and 1,250 times on iPhone since it became available less than a two weeks ago. In Missouri, the state that has been the stage of many protests following the August shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, the ACLU chapter says it has so far received and reviewed 600 video submissions.
Justin Hansford, a young law professor who has been active during the protests against police brutality and is part of the Ferguson legal defense committee, says the need for such an app was there.
“It’s very important that we put videos somewhere they can’t be damaged, destroyed or manipulated by government,” Hansford says.
Also vital is to have citizen-shot videos reviewed before they are uploaded to social media, says Hansford who has recently downloaded the app, as they can sometimes be used to incriminate those citizens who he says are the victims.
Sarah Rossi who is the director of policy and advocacy at ACLU’s Missouri chapter, says that the app is also an educational tool that seeks to empower citizens.
“I think that it is important for our citizens to feel comfortable filming the police and exercise their first amendment right to do so,” Rossi said. “And it is important for them to then have an organization that they can send it [the video] to whose objective it is to defend those constitutional rights.”
Last December, Obama announced intentions to finance 50,000 body cameras to adorn police officer shirts across the country as they go about their jobs. The move was made to increase transparency and accountability of law enforcement and help restore public trust.
In Ferguson, by the time a new wave of protests started in October 2014, following the initial wave in August, police officers had already been geared up with body cameras.
But more cameras in the hands of police may not necessarily mean more transparency.
In Missouri, two bills have since been introduced in the senate and the house to stop the state from forcing police to have dashboard cameras and body cameras, and greatly – or even completely – limit access of footage from these cameras to the general public.
Hansford sees police treatment of black and brown individuals as a form of bullying, and video use by citizens as a way of beating back the bullies.
“We try and have dignity. This is about human rights and human dignity,” he says. “The videos are now showing the truth.”
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