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SWAT: An App To Keep Dirty Cops Honest

A pair of Georgetown students want to build an app that protects your recordings of the police, even if your phone is smashed.

It’s legal in every U.S. state to record police officers, so long as you’re not interfering with their duty. Even still, it’s fairly common for police to claim otherwise. Most recently, reporters from Huffington Post and Washington Post were detained and assaulted, likely for filming Ferguson police officers. The pair walked away from the incident without charges, but if a citizen’s phone is broken or confiscated during a debate, they’re left without evidence to defend their own rights.

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SWAT is an app concept in development by a pair of Georgetown students Brandon Anderson and Joseph Gruenbaum. It wants to bring the convenience of streamlined mobile design to your civil liberties–consider it the equivalent of NYCLU’s Stop & Frisk app–except built for an entire nation.

One tab, for instance, allows you to file a police complaint without the intimidation of walking into a police station. Another tab spots your GPS coordinates and conveniently feeds you your specific regional rights as a citizen at a U.S., state, and city level. But its pièce de résistance is its built-in cloud camera app. Rather than saving your footage locally, it streams your recording, in real time, to be saved on a central server. So if your phone is lost, your evidence remains intact.

“I saw this as a need when I visited Ferguson a couple of weeks ago,” Anderson tells Co.Design. “A lot of phones were being smashed by police officers, and many phones were being accidentally crushed in the movement.”

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Specifically, Anderson cited two instances where he witnessed Ferguson police breaking phones. And unfortunately, that scenario matches what he’s hearing in product validation sessions his team has been conducting in D.C., Boston, and cities in California. Anderson believes this need–of protecting evidence from someone’s cell phone–is so strong that he’s staking his company’s business plan on it. Because while he’s somewhat open to building SWAT as a nonprofit that could run off of grant money, he sees its future as a B-corporation that could provide data to civil rights attorneys filing class action lawsuits against authorities. SWAT would operate off of a percentage charge for settlements.

As of today, the SWAT team has a long way to go to bring the app to market. Specifically, they don’t even have anything coded yet and are seeking a technical partner to make the vision a reality. That said, there’s no part of their proposed design that’s unattainable by current technology. Platforms like Justin.tv have livestreamed video from smartphones for years. And aside from its technical feasibility, Anderson has particular motivation to see his app realized.

“I lost my partner and high school friend to police brutality,” Anderson recalls of his days growing up in Oklahoma. “The cops weren’t prosecuted due to lack of evidence.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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