State News

ACLU app lets users document police encounters

Posted May 19, 2015 4:02 a.m. EDT
Updated May 19, 2015 6:04 p.m. EDT

— The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday unveiled a smartphone app which it says allows users to send videos to the organization when they believe law enforcement officers are violating civil rights.

The Mobile Justice North Carolina app is a free download that allows people to record and submit cellphone videos to the ACLU of North Carolina when they believe law enforcement officers are violating civil rights. The video sent to the ACLU is then preserved even if the user’s phone is later seized or destroyed.

"The Mobile Justice NC app gives everyday people a way to help hold police accountable," said Carolyna Caicedo Manrique, an ACLU staff attorney. "More police departments in the state are embracing the use of body cameras, but many departments lack the policies that provide and guarantee public access to the video footage."

Manrique said the state ACLU "receives hundreds of calls each year" from people describing bad encounters with the police.

The "witness" function on the app sends out an alert to anyone with the app, giving them the option to go to the location and document the encounter when police stop someone, while the "report" function allows the user to complete an incident report and send it directly to the ACLU for review.

"We hope that this technology will help us move toward a more just and transparent relationship between the police and the communities that they serve and protect," Manrique said.

Police advocates warned that the app could needlessly put people in danger.

"We are not against the videotaping of police. However, we believe it is irresponsible for the ACLU or other groups to encourage citizens to inject themselves into potentially dangerous, life-threatening situations to obtain video footage of police activity," Matt Cooper, president of the Raleigh Police Protective Association, said in a statement.

"Just because you know what you are doing doesn't mean the officer knows what you are doing," said John Midgette, director of the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association, "If they perceive your actions as a threat, they have the right to take the appropriate force and action necessary."

ACLU officials said people interacting with law enforcement should clearly announce that they are reaching for a phone to access the app to record the exchange. "Users' safety depends on their ability to clearly communicate any actions they take and remain calm," they said in a statement.

The app, which is available for use on Android and iOS phones in English and in Spanish, also includes information on individual rights.

Mobile Justice apps have been released by ACLU state affiliates is six other states across the country: California, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska and Oregon. Other ACLU state affiliates plan to release their own versions later this year.

The ACLU says the apps are modeled after the New York Civil Liberties Union's Stop and Frisk app.

North Carolina officials didn't say how their six staff members would handle any videos submitted. ACLU chapters in other states have received thousands of videos.