As the D.C. Council considers a bill regulating the use of police body cameras, the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital today announces the release of a mobile-phone app that the organization says will boost governmental accountability and transparency.
The ACLU has designed a “Mobile Justice” app available on Android and iOS phones allowing users to record videos of police incidents and directly submit footage to the nonprofit as documentation in civil complaints. Other jurisdictions launching the tool along the East Coast include Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Once a user has taken a video, he or she may then submit a case-intake form to the ACLU that appears in-app. The organization says the app was designed to comply with individual-privacy laws.
“Even though the timing of this [release] coincides with the body-camera debate, the function is both similar and different [to them],” says Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of ACLU’s D.C. branch. “We have to remember when police are recording people through body cams, they are government officials making a government document. This is a person exercising the First Amendment.”
Another distinction between body-worn cameras and the app, Hopkins-Maxwell notes, is the fact that police recordings are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, with some exceptions. The app also permits users to geo-tag their recordings through GPS as well as to ensure that the ACLU gets the footage even if officers were to confiscate phones and tamper with it, thus gathering more evidence.
While the Metropolitan Police Department has emphasized “community policing,” Hopkins-Maxwell adds, some residents may feel that the way officers engage with them is problematic. At a recent conference on race and policing, she says she heard from a Southwest man named Calvin, who testified that residents sometimes feel like police are there to “seek and destroy” rather than to “protect and serve.”
“We’re hearing a lot right now about this Youtube kind of backlash for police officers,” the ACLU director says. “Good police officers will know that any time they go out in public and interact with residents, they are representatives of the government, and it is not the actual recording of them that is the bad thing. It is the bad actors who are abusing their power in law enforcement and getting caught on camera that is hurtful and damaging to police-community relations…In other instances, residents have captured really great things.”
An instructional video on how to use the app is below:
Photo by Darrow Montgomery