How Smartphone Cameras Can Help Affect Police Reform


Police officers’ use of lethal force in New York, Cleveland, Ferguson, and, most recently, North Charleston, S.C., a working-class community next to the tourist destination of Charleston, has set off a debate about whether police are too quick to use force. The discussion has also highlighted the way that smartphone cameras grant regular citizens the power to influence the direction of the discussion about police and justice reform.

The video of the fatal shooting of Walter L. Scott, a black man, by Michael T. Slager, a white police officer, in North Charleston, is the latest evidence of the power of the ubiquity of smartphones to catalyze important political discussion. And Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac reported for The New York Times, it’s not only the smartphone itself that’s seen as an important tool by advocates of police reform. A growing number of apps, produced by activists, streamline the process of capturing and broadcasting videos of police officers interacting with citizens.

Take Cop Watch, an iOS app that begins recording when you tap its icon and automatically uploads the video to YouTube when the recording is stopped. Darren Baptiste, the creator of the app, told the Times that his app makes recording police encounters easier for citizens and makes the footage less vulnerable to confiscation by authorities. Baptiste says that when they’re photographing the police during intense situations, people may forget to hit record, or may not know how or where to upload a video. And there have been cases in which police confiscated cameras or phones where recordings were stored.

Baptiste created the app in collaboration with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence, which is alerted when a user uploads a video. Its staff can review the footage and, if necessary, alert the media and the authorities of any apparent wrongdoing by the police officers involved. So far, the Cop Watch app hasn’t gathered evidence of police misconduct, and usage has been low.

In the year that the app has been available, about 2,000 people have signed in to the program, and 1,000 videos have been uploaded — mostly showing people trying out the program. “This is truly one of those things that you hope people wouldn’t want to use it,” Baptiste said to the Times. “The main point of this app is to make people talk about why we have an app like this in the first place.”

These Apps Are Helping People Document Police Abuse

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It's hard to imagine a more clear example of the power of recording on-duty police officers than the video that led to the arrest and charging of North Charleston, South Carolina, police Officer Michael Slager on Tuesday.

Were it not for the footage shot by witness Feidin Santana, the sole account of the officer's fatal confrontation with 50-year-old Walter Scott would have come from the local police department, which offered a version of events that was not corroborated by the video Santana filmed.

Because some police officers will order people to turn off their cameras or will attempt to confiscate or destroy phones, it bears repeating: It is, in fact, perfectly legal to film police officers in the U.S. while they are on the job, in a public place, so long as you do not physically interfere with their ability to do their jobs.

cop watch

In an effort to protect that constitutional right, developers, in recent years, have been partnering with advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to develop smartphone apps aimed at making it easier for members of the public to document allegations of police abuse -- and to know their rights while doing so.

Below are some examples of such apps, including those in development and others that are already downloadable:

Created by the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence in Toronto, the free Cop Watch app — compatible with iOS platforms — has a setting that allows for video to be recorded as soon as the app is opened. The footage is then automatically uploaded to YouTube. The app also has a guide outlining the public’s rights when it comes to filming police. An Android app is “coming soon,” according to the NEPV website.

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Justice Through a Lens


Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

About 10 times a day, Darren Baptiste gets an email informing him that footage of police brutality may have been posted to YouTube through software he developed. Baptiste is the creator of CopWatch, an iPhone app that helps people record police-citizen interactions, upload them directly to the Internet, then alert Toronto-based activist group the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence to the material’s existence. Most of the videos that are whisked from people’s phones to Baptiste’s eyes are mundane test recordings by people just trying out the app for the first time. He ends up seeing a lot of shots of people’s socks. But occasionally, the video will reveal a dashboard view from a car stopped in traffic. As a cop marches up to the driver’s side window, Baptiste will watch and wait to see how the event ends. “Thankfully, none of those incidents have gone sideways yet,” Baptiste told me. But with every new email, he braces himself for the worst.

CopWatch launched in January of 2014, as if anticipating the year that police brutality would go viral. In July, a New York cop held Eric Garner in a banned chokehold while Garner protested, “I can’t breathe.” A friend filmed Garner’s death on his cellphone from a few feet away. In August, audio of the police shooting of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown was inadvertently recorded by a neighbor, then played back on CNN; several bystanders filmed the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death. In November, a security camera directed at a Cleveland park recorded a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, running around and playing with an airsoft gun. It also recorded cops driving their car onto the grass, jumping out of the police vehicle, and shooting Rice with a real weapon.

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