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Will ACLU's new smartphone app reduce civil rights violations?

We have written several posts over the last couple years about incidents in which police officers seemingly overstepped their authority and violated the civil rights of suspects. Many of these interactions involved African-American suspects and were ultimately fatal.

The problems of racial profiling and civil rights abuses happen everywhere in America, including here in Wisconsin. And the problem is not new. So why has it not received this much media attention in the past? Civil rights advocates say that evidence of police misconduct is now much easier to collect thanks to cellphone video cameras and other recording devices.

Law enforcement agencies around the country are considering proposals to put body cameras on police officers, but many issues of privacy and accountability are still being debated. In the meantime, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are trying to make it easier for average people to document police misconduct as it happens.

This week, the ACLU announced the release of a free new smartphone app called "Mobile Justice." According to news sources, it has four important features:

  1. A recording feature to allow individuals to record police interactions and send the video files directly and immediately to the local chapter of the ACLU
  2. A reporting feature that allows individuals to give a more detailed account of a police interaction, which is then immediately sent to the local ACLU chapter
  3. An option allowing Mobile Justice users to alert other MJ users in the area to come and serve as witnesses to an interaction with law enforcement
  4. A feature informing individuals of their rights during police interactions

At first blush, the Mobile Justice app seems both promising and potentially problematic. On one hand, it may better preserve evidence of police misconduct, because police officers won't be able to get rid of videos by confiscating or destroying an observer's cellphone. The video files will already be in the cloud.

On the other hand, average citizens need to be very careful how they use the MJ app during encounters with police. If a user answers the call to be a witness, they need to observe without getting in the way. Otherwise, they could face criminal charges or could potentially be harmed if the situation escalates.

If a user of the MJ app is the suspect in a law enforcement interaction, they need to communicate with police and reach for their phone slowly. The potential consequences of failing to do so are obvious.

While the Mobile Justice app will not be a cure-all for civil rights violations, it should at least put police on notice that their actions can now be observed and scrutinized.

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