Apps to Record Police Put Power in the Public’s Hands

It’s horrific and heartbreaking to watch the video of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, being shot in the back and killed by a North Charleston, South Carolina cop in April 2015, but that video is the very reason that Officer Michael Slager was charged with Scott’s murder. Following the incident, many South Carolina police were equipped with body cameras, but it was the video from bystander Feidin Santana that revealed discrepancies with the official police report.

Everyone has the right to film the police, says the ACLU, and the civil liberties organization has launched Mobile Justice apps to record police encounters in several states. The apps involve the public in holding police accountable for their actions. An immediate upload of the video to the ACLU means the recordings cannot be confiscated or destroyed by officers who wrongly interfere with the public’s right to record police on duty.

The ACLU’s Mobile Justice apps are already in use in seven states—California, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Oregon, patterned after the Stop and Frisk app launched by the New York affiliate of the ACLU in 2012. So far, more than 250,000 people have downloaded the apps.

The Mobile Justice apps are coming to 11 more regions this fall—Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, DC. The ACLU of Oregon is relaunching its app with an iPhone version, after advocating for and winning state legislation to clarify that recording the police is a constitutionally-protected activity.

This free app for mobile devices allows users to record and automatically submit videos of interactions with law enforcement to their local ACLU, safeguarding evidence from possible destruction and empowering the public to document the truth about individual police encounters.

The ACLU has come to understand the terrible reality that, without mechanisms for the immediate and indisputable tracking of law enforcement conduct, the most vulnerable among us will continue to suffer unconstitutional, inhumane, and even fatal mistreatment at the hands of certain public officials.

The Guardian estimated in July that police in the United States were killing people at a rate that would result in 1,100 fatalities by the end of this year. According to the Guardian, Black men killed by police are twice as likely to be unarmed as White people. In August, the Washington Post published the startling fact that police had shot an unarmed Black man every nine days in 2015.

So how do we stop the growing number of police encounters that end with fatalities of unarmed people, most often Black men? The ACLU is working with police departments nationwide to instill a culture where arrest and use of force by law enforcement are last resorts, not first options. ACLU advocates are calling for police to develop greater collaboration with and inclusion of community stakeholders; adopt training, policies and practices to reduce the use of force; and establish stronger mechanisms for transparency and accountability, such as independent civil review boards with disciplinary authority. As police departments across the country begin outfitting cops with body cams, the ACLU is working with them to develop effective policies regarding their use. And the ACLU is calling on bystanders to record police activity.

When recording police, remember two rules to keep yourself out of danger. 1) Be cautious when getting out your cell phone so police don’t mistake your movement for reaching for a weapon. 2) Be an eyewitness, but do not interfere with police actions.

While having video footage of a police encounter doesn’t necessarily change the outcome, it can help clarify disputed facts. Even if there is police body camera footage, footage shot by eyewitnesses shows a different perspective. And publicly shot video submitted to the ACLU endures even if police body cams don’t capture an incident, or if police video disappears. The Mobile Justice apps put evidence in the hands of an individual and the ACLU, not law enforcement, providing an independent check on government officials.

All of the ACLU’s Mobile Justice apps are available for use on Android and iOS phones and can be downloaded free through Apple’s App Store or Google Play. They enable users to register, record, witness, and report interactions with law enforcement and also offer information on your constitutional rights.

Record allows citizens to capture exchanges between police officers and themselves or other community members in audio and video files that are automatically sent to your local ACLU.

Witness sends out an alert when someone is stopped by police so that community members can move toward the location and document the interaction.

Report gives the app user the option to complete an incident report and send it directly to your local ACLU. Know Your Rights provides an overview of what rights protect you when you are stopped by law enforcement officers.

With or without the Mobile Justice app, pressing record on your mobile device could make the difference in holding law enforcement accountable. Police body cams may prove to be effective tools in curbing police abuse, but bystanders’ cameras can be more powerful. Those images are not subject to police control, and the footage they capture is immediately available for the whole world to see.

When everyone watches, police are far more likely to held accountable for any unlawful behavior.

Get the ACLU’s Mobile Justice app and keep justice within reach.

Jana Kooren