ACLU of California Launches Cellphone App to Preserve Videos of Police

A homeless man on skid row was shot to death last month during an altercation with Los Angeles police. Cellphone video captured the incident. (Los Angeles Police Department)
A homeless man on skid row was shot to death last month during an altercation with Los Angeles police. Cellphone video captured the incident. (Los Angeles Police Department)

Californians who use their cellphones to record police encounters with the public on video will be able to automatically transmit them directly to their local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union using a smartphone application launched Thursday.

By using the Mobile Justice CA app to send recordings to the ACLU, leaders of the organization said, people can ensure that video of potential police misconduct is preserved, even if their cellphone is tampered with or destroyed.

“We’re merging the power of technology with the power of the ACLU and the power of the people,” Hector Villagra, the executive director for the ACLU of Southern California, told reporters Thursday. “We are so proud to put an innovative new tool in people’s hands, empowering people to know, to assert and to protect their rights.”

Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, told The Times that work on the app began before the recent national outcry over how police officers use force, particularly against black men. But, he said, the recent string of controversial police killings have shown the importance – and impact – of civilian-captured video.

“As we’ve seen in headlines over the previous few months, recordings by members of the public is a crucial check on police abuse,” Bibring said. “We’ve seen a number of examples of high-profile incidents of abuse and unlawful shootings or killings that never would have come to light if someone wouldn’t have pulled out their phone and taken video.”

Similar apps have been rolled out by ACLU chapters in other states, including New York, Oregon and Missouri. Villagra said the app in New York — which was designed to document the controversial “stop and frisk” practice used by the NYPD — has generated about 30,000 videos since it was launched in 2012.

The California rollout comes amid a heated national discussion about policing and ways to bring more transparency to controversial officer-civilian encounters. Video is widely seen as a crucial tool for bringing about that clarity — whether it comes from a police officer’s body camera or a civilian’s smartphone.

In July, a Staten Island, N.Y., man used his cellphone to record an interaction between his friend, Eric Garner, and New York police officers that turned deadly. The video shows one of the officers use what appeared to be a chokehold to help pull Garner to the ground. As officers piled on top of him, the video shows, Garner repeatedly gasped, “I can’t breathe.”

And earlier this month, cellphone video surfaced showing a South Carolina police officer fatally shoot Walter Scott in the back eight times as Scott ran away. That video contradicted the officer’s version of the encounter in which he told investigators that Scott had taken his stun gun and that he feared for his life.

Shortly after the video emerged, the officer was charged with murder.

“Video doesn’t always capture everything, but it does provide a much more objective evidence of what actually happened,” Bibring said.

Protecting the video, Bibring said, is the key advantage of using the new app. Although many officers and departments understand a person’s right to film police officers, he said, not all do.

He pointed to a recent incident in South Gate, where a deputy U.S. Marshal snatched the cellphone of a woman who was recording him and then smashed it on the ground.

“The right to film police is clearly established and even so, we see incidents like that,” Bibring said.

The app works this way:

  • Users download free application on their Android or Apple device
  • When they want to record a police encounter, users open the app to begin recording
  • The app will flag the location of the incident so other nearby users can, if they choose, go to the scene and take their own video. The app also includes an overview of the legal rights citizens have when stopped by police.
  • As soon as the recording stops, a duplicate copy of the footage is immediately uploaded to the ACLU. The cell phone’s screen is also locked, to prevent someone from accessing the footage.
  • A text report appears on the phone allowing the user to explain what he or she saw.
  • ACLU officials will comb through the text reports and review any videos that may show misconduct by police.

Bibring stressed that aside from the location of the incident, those who submit videos can remain anonymous and their personal information would not be retained by the organization. He said the ACLU could make public videos that are received via the app.

The ACLU teamed up with Oakland-based Elle Baker Center for Human Rights on the app. Patrice Cullors, a director for the center, said her organization would focus on ways to make sure the app was being used.

Part of that outreach, she said, would include a statewide caravan to raise awareness about the new app, focusing on cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, Stockton, Sacramento and Oakland.

Cullors described the app as “the people’s body camera,” a nod to the new technology many police departments are adopting to provide more transparency to controversial encounters. The app, she said, “records, witnesses and reports.”

“We are living in a moment where abuse of power is being challenged, being questioned and no longer being ignored,” she said.

article by Kate Mather via

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