ACLU rolls out new apps to turn smartphones into citizen bodycams

© Mike Blake
The American Civil Liberties Union is rolling out free ‘Mobile Justice’ smartphone apps in 10 states for recording alleged police misconduct. They will record and automatically send footage of an encounter to a state ACLU affiliate.

State-specific Mobile Justice apps have made their debut on Friday in 10 states, including Maryland, Virginia, Arizona, Minnesota and Colorado, as well as in Washington, DC. Eight other states, such as New York and California, had previously released their own versions.

The app allows users to upload cell phone video to their local ACLU’s database in real time. This means that even if the video is deleted or the phone is confiscated or destroyed, the footage is already with the civil liberties organization. If the video is submitted with an incident report, ACLU lawyers will treat it as a legal submission, according to spokeswoman Meredith Curtis.

"We have had cases in the past where police have seized people's phones and wiped the recordings. This stops that from happening,” Curtis told Sky News. 

In addition to the record function, the Mobile Justice apps have a “witness function” that sends an alert to others nearby with the app when police stop someone, so that “community members can move toward the location and document the interaction,” according to the ACLU of Maryland’s website. Also included is a report function, which allows users to complete a corresponding incident report for legal staff to review.

“Mobile Justice puts in the hands of the public the power of technology that law enforcement already uses,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU’s Virginia chapter. “We refer to it as ‘the people’s body-cam’. Every citizen who has a smart phone should equip themselves today with this important accountability tool.”

However, some officers have argued that the witness function is an irresponsible feature that could have unintended negative effects for all parties involved.

"The [ACLU] app may require a larger police presence to deescalate some situations, an outcome neither law enforcement nor the community desire,” David Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation in Minnesota, said in a statement.

Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the app's alert function could result in citizens showing up at the scene of an incident and recording victims, witnesses or suspects. This could lead to a lower level of cooperation with police for fear of identities being posted on social media.

According to Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota, these fears are overblown. She said that the app’s notification function has been in place for almost a year in other states, and no concerning incidents have happened yet. She also noted that the ACLU is the only organization with access to the footage the app records.

"It can be a useful tool to add another set of eyes, but I don't think it's going to create mass chaos," Nelson told the Star-Tribune.

With the vast majority of Americans having cell phone cameras on them at all times, citizens have increasingly been able to record their interactions with police. A recent focus on police conduct and brutality was sparked with the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who was killed by officers in Baltimore in April. This led to nationwide protests and even riots, which have resulted in many police departments requiring their officers to wear body cameras, and has led to increased scrutiny about police behavior.