New smartphone app helps the public keep cops accountable
“If you see something, say something.”
It’s a mantra that’s constantly drilled into us in post-9/11 America. But what if you see the cops do something wrong? How do you say something then?
Umm… there’s an app for that.
Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado unveiled a new smartphone app that lets users record police interactions that get automatically submitted to the ACLU. The footage is treated as legal intake to be reviewed by ACLU staff for any inkling of civil rights abuse. And if the ACLU sees anything that raises flags, appropriate legal action will be taken.
When you download Mobile Justice CO, you’ll see four screens to toggle between: record, witness, report and rights.
If you click “record,” you’ll record an audio-visual file that’s directly stored on the ACLU’s server.
If you click “witness,” a notification will be sent out to other Mobile Justice CO users within a kilometer, alerting them that a police interaction potentially worth filming is underway.
If you click “report,” you’ll have the ability to detail the interaction in words, creating an incident report that also gets automatically submitted to the ACLU.
If you click “rights,” you’ll get to read a simple know-your-rights guide for recording and interacting with law enforcement officers.
The app can be used anonymously, though personal information does help the ACLU investigate potential wrongdoing.
“Recording police is a fundamental right, and we encourage people to,” ACLU communications director John Krieger said at the official release held outside Denver Police Headquarters. Cell phone footage is now a critical tool for police accountability, he said, pointing to a recent case in Colorado Springs as an example.
The ACLU represented Ryan Brown, a young African-American man, who was driving in Colorado Springs with his brother Benjamin last March when they got pulled over for a cracked windshield. Police first ordered Benjamin, the driver, out of the car. He was handcuffed, searched and detained in the back of a police car. That’s when Ryan started filming on his cell phone.
Brown asked repeatedly why he and his brother were being searched and if he was under arrest. Repeatedly, he was ignored.
The footage, which has nearly 160,000 views on YouTube, shows cops holding Brown at gunpoint, pulling him out of the car, cuffing him and throwing him onto the ground. The last frame captured before officers took his cell phone is a strained selfie of Brown’s face pushed into the snow by the white officer’s meaty forearm.
Ryan was charged with “interfering with official police duties,” and his brother Benjamin was cited for the cracked windshield.
Ryan Brown filed a complaint with the Colorado Springs Police Department in June, after which the department conducted its own internal investigation. Soon after, he got a short letter from police informing him that the actions of officer Dave Nelson were deemed to be “justified, legal and proper.”
The ACLU tried to get a copy of the internal file from the investigation, but was denied because of Brown’s pending criminal charges. In the end, district attorney of El Paso and Teller Counties Dan May dismissed the charges — a victory Krieger reckons they wouldn’t have won without the cell phone footage.
ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein pointed out that recording police interactions doesn’t just protect victims — it protects the cops too.
“When police see they are being videotaped, the interaction is tempered all around.”
Cops and cameras have been the subject of serious public scrutiny this year.
Last legislative session, Colorado became the first state in the country to proactively affirm the public’s First Amendment right to record police officers. The co-called “Right to Record” bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton passed both chambers with bipartisan support. The law spells out a clear process by which an officer can legally obtain a citizen’s recording.
The Colorado Chiefs of Police strongly opposed “Right to Record.”
When it was up for debate, Chief John Jackson of Greenwood Village told The Colorado Independent’s Tessa Cheek that “We’re not going to say people have no right to record, but we don’t think there should be these punitive damages assessed… and we believe we still have the right to seize evidence of a crime.”
Last session, a bill to encourage law enforcement’s use of body-worn cameras died but was eventually resurrected and passed. The bill created a study group to recommend body camera policies to law enforcement agencies and devise ways to hold those agencies accountable. The legislation also created a grant program to fund police departments’ purchase, training and management of the cameras.
Wracked with excessive force scandals, the City of Denver dug deep to spring for the cameras on its own. This summer, City Council approved a $6.1 million contract with Taser International for 800 body cameras and data storage over the next five years. Starting in November, officers in traffic, patrol and gang units will start donning the cameras. Last month, the department decided off-duty officers and sergeants will wear the cameras, but SWAT officers won’t.
At the app release Thursday, Mark Silverstein of the ACLU said that in this new film-it-all era, both police and civilians should have the ability to hold each other accountable. Though he did give an eyebrows-raised laugh when imagining how much footage of people filming police filming people will come in.
Correction 5:35: This article originally stated that a police body camera bill died in the last legislative session. That is true. But it was resurrected later and passed.
Screengrab via ACLU on YouTube. Photo of John Krieger by Nat Stein.
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