May 1 7:25 PM

Police accountability? There’s an app for that

North Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael Slager shoots Walter Scott in the back as he flees from a confrontation and the incident was captured by a bystander with a mobile phone. Before the existence of these images was known, police described a very different chain of events.

It’s been 24 years since George Holliday used a Sony HandyCam to videotape Los Angeles police officers beating an unarmed Rodney King after a car chase across San Fernando Valley streets. The grainy recording was sold to a local TV station for $500, and, from there, spread around the globe, even making a controversial appearance in the 1993 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Today, amateur recordings of police brutality are, for better and worse, strikingly less rare. (Better because mobile phones have put the tools in so many hands; worse, naturally, because there are still so many opportunities to record abuse.)

As police become more aware of the handheld panopticon that potentially observes their actions, there are also positives and negatives. The presence of citizen video can make law enforcement think twice before acting in ways unbecoming or illegal, but the negative publicity police have received after a spate of troubling and revealing recordings have come to light has made some officers openly hostile to the presence of camera phones.

In fact, there is cellphone video from earlier this year showing a woman in a Los Angeles suburb taping law enforcement as they detained people in her neighborhood. Suddenly, a deputy U.S. marshal rushed the woman, taking her phone and smashing it on the ground.

To guard against that sort of destruction of potential evidence and to facilitate more technology-aided accountability, The American Civil Liberties Union of California unveiled a smartphone app earlier this week explicitly intended for use in such situations.

The free “Mobile Justice CA” app allows iPhone and Android users to record and automatically send video of abusive encounters to ACLU servers, preserving the footage, even if law enforcement destroys the phone or seizes it and deletes the recording. Users are also given the opportunity to annotate the footage with text about the location and the people involved.

Video received by the ACLU is treated as a “request for legal assistance” and is reviewed by staff. The ACLU will not pursue action without the consent of the videographer, but the videos may be shared with news organizations, civic groups or the general public in order to flag abusive conduct, according to the ACLU.

Available in English and Spanish, the app also explains videographer rights in California.

Mobile Justice CA is not the first accountability app produced by a branch of the ACLU.  “Stop & Frisk Watch” has been available for New York smartphones since 2012. The NYCLU, which was the first to create this sort of tool, says it has received 40,000 recordings since launch. None, according to NYCLU spokeswoman Jennifer Carnig, that are as graphically brutal as the Rodney King tape, but, as Carnig told the Los Angeles Times, “we certainly have seen videos that really raise some serious questions about how police officers interact with the communities that they’re supposed to be protecting.”

Missouri, New Jersey and Oregon also have versions available, though each works in slightly different ways.

While documenting bad behavior has proven useful — even dramatically so — in recent months (look no further than South Carolina, where a bystander recorded the shooting death of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer; before the existence of the video was known, the patrolman lied about the circumstances of the killing), they are not a cure-all. The presence of cellphone cameras did not prevent the chokehold death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner at the hands of a New York police officer — nor did the video of the illegal maneuver result in any indictments related to the illegal and fatal takedown.

And in some states, law enforcement is pushing back. While the California Senate has moved legislation providing legal protection for citizens who film police activity (as long as they don’t hamper investigations), Texas is looking to criminalize the practice, saying that it interferes with law enforcement.

Well, if the apps work as intended, perhaps a certain kind of enforcement.

“This app will help serve as a check on abuse,” Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, told The Nation, by allowing “ordinary citizens to record and document any interaction with law enforcement.”

The technology has improved much since the days of Rodney King. With their new app, the ACLU hopes police tactics might do so, as well.


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter