Get Stopped by the Police? There’s an App for That


By Sharee Silerio, The Root


They were tragedies caught on video.


Almost a year ago, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot and killed by Cleveland police officers within two seconds of the officers arriving on the scene; in April of this year, Freddie Gray died from an injury suffered while in police custody in Baltimore; in the same month, Walter L. Scott was shot in the back eight times while fleeing a police officer during a traffic stop in South Carolina. Video footage of Tamir’s, Gray’s and Scott’s interactions with police led to terminations or criminal charges, outrage, protests and discussions focused on police violence and race.


“We should know how police are doing their jobs, because we give them tremendous power, we give them power no other government official has—to stop somebody, to arrest somebody and even to kill,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “If we think they are not doing it in accordance with our values, then we have to demand that it change.”


One thing that could help push that change is the act of recording these interactions between citizens and police.


This year the ACLU of California, the joint branch of the ACLU of Southern California and the two other ACLU affiliates in the state, launched an app to make it safe and easy for citizens to exercise their right to record police interactions.


The free app, Mobile Justice CA, allows Android and iPhone users to record and automatically send video of police encounters to ACLU servers, preserving the footage even if officers try to destroy the phone or delete the video. A copy of the video is also saved to the user’s camera roll.


Villagra revealed that the goal was to get 100,000 downloads in a year, a goal the group exceeded in five months with over 160,000 downloads. Five additional ACLU offices—Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York and Oregon—have launched the app.


“I think there is a big group coming on very soon, a group of about nine or 10 affiliates,” Villagra said. “I want people to know that it will hopefully be coming to their state very soon.”


There are three main functions of the app: record, report and witness.


After users record an encounter, they can submit a confidential incident report, including details of what they observed, which can also be submitted without a video. The witness feature allows users to receive notifications in real time to indicate when people around them are recording an incident.


Mobile Justice CA can also be used as a tool for police accountability and transparency, especially since the release of police body-camera footage is often determined by police departments.


“The app puts a certain amount of power and control back in individual’s hands. It’s like the people’s body camera, and the people get to control whether the video gets released or not, not the police department,” Villagra said.


The ACLU will review the incident reports and videos submitted to decide whether to provide legal assistance. The organization may also publicize incidents of law-enforcement misconduct and share videos and other information with community organizations or the public.


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