There’s no shortage of Hollywood-style technologies police have at their fingertips to enforce the law. They analyze public and private security video footage. They automatically scan passing license plates for outstanding traffic tickets. They observe crowds with facial recognition devices and use Big Data to target communities for more heightened police attention.
But digital innovations aren’t just for cops. They’ve become an important tool for the public to watchdog police themselves. Video from a bystander that contradicted official claims proved critical in South Carolina when an officer shot an unarmed 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back. The officer was sentenced to 20 years in prison for second-degree murder.
Here are some of the best tools we’ve seen:
The nonprofit tool Raheem was created in Oakland, California, from an Army veteran whose partner was killed by police during a routine traffic stop. Police killings are the sixth leading cause of death for young black males, the organization points out. Raheem offers simple online steps for reporting both positive and negative police interactions. Dozens of reports have been submitted just from Oklahoma and can be read online.
Tech-savvy high school students in Georgia created the Five-O app. It enables residents to record and store images and video from police encounters. The app’s user community can then analyze and share the content for the purposes of rating officers and law enforcement agencies. You can also search for ongoing police interactions in your area.
The long-running grassroots advocacy group Cop Watch has encouraged documentation of law enforcement interactions since well before the internet arrived. To avoid fumbling for the camera on your smartphone, the Cop Watch app begins recording the second it’s opened. The footage is also automatically uploaded to YouTube in the event police attempt to stop your recording or seize your device.
The American Civil Liberties Union turned 100 years old in 2020. It’s one of the oldest and most important organizations watchdogging excessive police action and abuse. Their tool for recording police interactions is called Mobile Justice. You can record any public officials, including police, and share the content with select people in your smartphone’s contact list. The content can also be shared with your local ACLU chapter. You can additionally get notifications of law changes in your area that affect your rights.
What if you wanted to feel more secure while communicating with other people during street protests? The Signal messaging app is dedicated to privacy for users and blocking outside eavesdroppers, including the Government. It supports highly encrypted calling, video, and messaging services for free. Signal recently announced group video chat capabilities, and downloads of it have surged in 2020.
The app Citizen is controversial. Like the app Nextdoor, Citizen enables people to much more closely monitor public safety agencies and incidents. Traditional radio scanner apps allow people to listen in on police radio communications. Nextdoor allows people to post video and images of suspicious activity. Citizen essentially combines the two and supercharges rubber-necking of police and fire incidents. But it can just as easily be used for holding public safety officials accountable. Downloads of Citizen have also surged during 2020.
There’s a new but little-known shortcut available on the new iPhone 12 that makes police monitoring far easier. Apple has empowered developers to create simple shortcuts they can then share with other iPhone users. A developer in Arizona created a shortcut called Police that anyone can download. By simple saying “Hey Siri, I’m getting pulled over,” the iPhone turns down any music, dims your phone’s screen, and begins recording the interaction.
The nonprofit Center for Policing Equity is using Big Data on behalf of police departments to help them spot where racial disparities are occurring and growing worse. Called COMPSTAT for Justice, the team hopes to build community trust by analyzing traffic stops, instances of use of force, surveys of the public, and academy and training procedures.
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