Controversial app can “police the police”

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) – Call it a sign of the times. A civil rights group thinks relationships between police and the community has gotten so bad they are now encouraging citizens to record police.

There is a new app that will soon launch in Virginia. It’s called Mobile Justice. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) created it to further its mission of making sure citizen’s rights aren’t violated.

Mobile Justice would be just like any other app that’s downloaded on your smartphone. The ACLU wants citizens to use it whenever they have an interaction with police.

The video is often difficult to watch and hear. Public response to police interactions has spiked because citizens are now recording and sharing their video.

A cell phone captured a New York officer putting Eric Garner in what appears to be a state prohibited choke hold. Garner later died. Cell phone video recorded an officer shooting and killing Walter Scott in South Carolina. The officer was charged with murder.

In Virginia Beach, cell phone video captured the controversial arrests of D’Vondray McIntyre at the Oceanfront in May and the tazing of Brandon Wyne inside a vehicle. In Wyne’s case a woman in the car said an officer tried deleting the video.

All of these instances and others have contributed to a lack of trust between police and the communities they serve.

“Too many police departments in Virginia right now have cultures of secrecy,” said the Executive Director of the Virginia ACLU Claire Guthrie Gastanaga. “Anytime you can film somebody in real-time it makes it harder for them to make up a story,” she continued.

There are three key features of the app – Record, Witness and Report. Once activated, video is captured, saved, and then sent directly to the ACLU.

“So if something happens to you during that process you don’t have to affirmatively upload the video,” Gastanaga said. “You can record your interaction with the police whether the police man wants you to or whether they ever know you are doing it.”

Virginia is a one-party consent state. That means anyone involved can record a conversation or interaction. Bystanders can too, as long as they don’t interfere with police doing their jobs.

Attorney Mike Imprevento often represents police in litigation. He said just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

“Officers are very concerned about having their movements monitored in a way that affects public safety that someone of ill intent could use the visuals on this and the technology of this to establish police patrol patterns,” he said.

Gastanaga said, “It’s not anything new, but it is a way systemically to be sure that there’s an organization like the ACLU that’s looking at these kinds of things and asking the right questions about what the videos reveal and what kinds of changes in behavior might be warranted.“

Those changes according to the ACLU need to be made statewide. The organization has nicknamed this new app the ‘public’s body camera.’

Some police officers already wear cameras. The ACLU says police body cameras are most effective in transparency with certain policies in place.

“They’re only successful in promoting those values if people have access to the video, people who are subjects in the video have access to the video, people who invite a police officer into their home to talk about an incident have the right to tell them to turn the video off,” Gastanaga said.

10 On Your Side found a law enforcement report published a year ago that revealed when worn, police body cameras ‘prevent escalation during police-public interactions: whether abusive behavior towards police or unnecessary use-of-force by police.’

You can read the full study by Police Foundation Executive Fellow Tony Farrar, (Chief of the Rialto, CA Police Department) here.

The ACLU is hoping with the combination of video from body cameras worn by police and recorded by the public, trust can be restored.

But not so fast. Imprevento said the witness feature of the app can make already tense situations even more volatile.

“People don’t realize [officers] don’t know what your motives are. They don’t know what’s in your mind and then you’re coming up a tense scene and then you are videoing. It certainly causes heightened awareness. It is a potential for problem,” Imprevento said.

Imprevento also said the app has limitations that can’t show the whole picture. “It won’t record the whole event. It won’t record what the officer allegedly smelled in the vehicle, it won’t record some of the nuances of the individual’s hands that you can’t see on the video,” he said.

“An officer looks at hands. An officer looks at anything that can be brought to bear to bring an instrumentality out that will take his or her life. The camera is not going to be looking at things that a trained professional looks at,” Imprevento said.

According to the ACLU, that’s why the report feature is important. Anyone uploading a video should fill out the form giving details of the incident. From that information and the video, the ACLU will decide if it’ll investigate.

“We’re going to be looking to see whether there are patterns in the videos we get. Whether there is repeat behavior in the videos we get. If one entity is looking across the state at different information we’ll know something that an individual department might not know,” Gastanaga said.

10 On Your Side’s Brandi Cummings asked Gastanaga, “How will you ensure that the videos are authentic?” To which Gastanaga responded, “That’s why if you have an incident report and the person associated with it, you’re going to do further investigation so we would look into it. We would do the same thing we would do if somebody just called us up or filed a report online. We always do a factual inquiry.”

Even if citizens download and use the Mobile Justice app, Imprevento has this advice. “If you believe that they don’t have the right to take you into custody or that you have a defense, litigate it in court don’t litigate it on the street.”

According to information provided to 10 On Your Side by ACLU of Virginia Director, Public Policy and Communications Bill Farrar, APR:

The New York Civil Liberties Union launched its Stop and Frisk app to record police in 2012.

Mobile Justice 1.0 apps, launched in spring of 2015, were modeled after Stop and Frisk and are currently available in the following states: California, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina and Oregon (Android only).

Mobile Justice 2.0 apps will be released in fall of 2015 by the following affiliates: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington DC.

Mobile Justice will launch in Virginia November 13.

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