If you walk past a cop tackling someone on the sidewalk, you have a First Amendment right to pull out your cell phone and start filming. Still, that doesn’t mean that every officer will respect that right: In April, when a woman in Los Angeles started recording an incident in her neighborhood, a U.S. marshal grabbed the phone out of her hands and smashed it on the sidewalk, destroying the footage.
That’s one of the reasons that the Mobile Justice App, recently released by the ACLU of California, automatically sends footage straight to ACLU servers. If the phone is seized or destroyed, there’s still a record of what happened.
The app was originally developed by the New York Civil Liberties Union to document the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk campaign. Now it’s been retooled to deter police misconduct, and record abuse when it happens.
“This is more than just a novel camera to record police encounters,” says Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at ACLU of Southern California. “It’s not just about providing a technical solution.”
The app includes a “witness” button that alerts people nearby when an incident is occurring, so they can also come record. Another section in the app explains the rules for legally recording police activity, and what to do if you’re harassed or arrested.
It’s a critical tool for accountability, the organization says. “Of the high-profile incidents that have been the subject of national conversation–Walter Scott, Eric Garner–we’ve seen a number of those that likely would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for somebody who pulled out a cell phone to video record the incident,” says Bibring.
Though many police departments are starting to test body cameras, Bibring says they’re not enough. “We’re still years away from them being universal,” he says. “So in the meantime there’s still a need for civilians to document the police. … Body cameras also don’t show the whole scene or the officer. Someone who’s not an officer can provide a different and very important angle.”
It also isn’t clear that police will readily share bodycam footage–especially since many cases now are settled because the government wants to avoid releasing embarrassing evidence like a bodycam might provide.
“Some of the policies we’ve seen departments roll out with body cameras are very troubling and don’t necessarily serve the goals of transparency,” Bibring says. “For example, the chief of the LAPD has been clear they do not intend to release body camera footage period unless required to do so in a civil or criminal case.”
“Body cameras don’t help serve transparency if the public never sees the footage,” he says. “Apps like this are crucial because they put the video in the hands of the communities that are affected by policing, and in the hands of civil rights groups like the ACLU.”
The California app is available for download for iOS and Android. Other ACLU affiliates have developed similar apps, each tailored for specific recording laws in a particular state.