Thursday I wrote about the Department of Justice’s $75 million body camera grant program for local governments, concluding that there are more immediate steps the Obama administration can take to combat police abuse:
Instead, the federal government can do a lot of good for police transparency by monitoring state and local police departments abuse of citizens’ rights in filming the police. Despite the fact that the First Amendment protects the practice in all 50 states, hundreds of Americans are arrested each year for filming the police in public during routine encounters. Even individuals who aren’t arrested for filming cops are routinely harassed for doing so, such as the man who uploaded Eric Garner’s death on YouTube.
As chance would have it, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) just rolled out an application to combat such abuse called “Mobile Justice”. Originally released by the civil rights group’s California chapter last Friday, the app allows users to record video of police encounters and immediately send it to their local ACLU chapter. This is a particularly important feature considering that cops often demand citizens delete the video of their encounters on the streets.
Furthermore, the app includes a “witness” function, notifying other users within a three-mile radius of an encounter to serve as additional observers. As of Wednesday, the app had been downloaded 50,000 times.
Ultimately, I would not be surprised if apps like these — and smartphones in general — do more to combating police abuse than body cameras ever will. After all, cops ultimately control when to turn on their body cameras, and police departments may cover up abuse by refusing to release footage, but they have no control over when a citizen will start filming. With digital cameras so ubiquitous today, it is finally possible to watch the watchmen, and apps like the ACLU’s make it even easier.