- Written by Ajamu Nangwaya
By Jess Bolluyt
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.”