ACLU launches apps in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to document police actions

The American Civil Liberties Union launched free smartphone apps in Maryland, the District and Virginia on Friday that allow users to record police actions and instantly transfer the video to the organization's attorneys for review.

ACLU officials hope Mobile Justice becomes a citizens' version of officer-worn body cameras, making police more accountable and deterring incidents of excessive force. The app, available for the iPhone and Android operating systems, has been available for several years in a number of states, including New York, Colorado and California. Officials said it has been downloaded about 300,000 times.

The app uses a smartphone’s camera to record incidents. The video is automatically transferred to the ACLU, to preserve it in case the phone is lost, confiscated or destroyed. Users fill out a report documenting the location, time and people involved in the incident. If the incident appears to show police misconduct or a violation of civil rights, the ACLU could choose to take action.

The ACLU unveiled a free app it calls the people's body camera, encouraging residents to film encounters with police. (ACLU of Virginia)

The app can also notify users when other users nearby have been stopped by police. This allows them to witness and record the interaction. The app includes a “Know Your Rights” section, with state-specific guides for interacting with and recording the police.

“The app puts the public on the same footing with the police,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. “People can take their own video and make a choice about when to disclose it.”

Gastañaga said the ACLU spent the summer studying the use of body cameras by police and that the release of Mobile Justice was, in part, a response to it. She said body cameras were intended to “open up transparency and accountability and help restore trust” in police, but she said if public records laws aren’t changed to mandate the release of the videos, it won’t have much impact.

“If you know citizens are taking film and it’s made available to ACLU, and we’ll have an opportunity to make decisions if civil rights have been violated contemporaneously with events, that might change how you treat police-worn body cameras,” she said.

Maj. Edward O'Carroll, director of public affairs for the Fairfax County Police, said in an e-mail that although he has not reviewed the app, the department supports citizens’ rights to record police, as long as it doesn’t obstruct officers’ actions, jeopardize safety or incite others to break the law.

“We want the community to be informed, safe, and trust the officers who are tasked with their roles as community law enforcement,” O’Carroll said.

Likewise, Greg Shipley, a Maryland State Police spokesman, said the department has no issue with the app and that police “welcome the opportunity to display their professionalism during interactions with the citizens we serve.”

The launch comes after cellphone video has played a pivotal role in a number of high-profile cases of excessive force by officers against African Americans, including Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. Many of the videos have gone viral online and helped build a national movement focused on police violence toward African Americans.

The Mobile Justice app is available, in English and Spanish versions, through the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Under the terms of the app, the ACLU has the right to use a video submitted as it chooses. Gastañaga said that could mean mounting a campaign in some cases or choosing to do nothing if the video does not show misconduct. The ACLU also warned people to notify police if they have been stopped and are attempting to reach for a phone to record the interaction.

The ACLU said it has received tens of thousands of videos through the Mobile Justice program, but it has not pursued litigation in any case.

ACLU officials in New York City said a similar app made to document interactions between police and residents involved in the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk program has generated thousands of video submissions, but no litigation has arisen from it.

Mobile Justice is one of a crop of new police-accountability apps that have come out in recent years. Among others, Five-O allows users to rate officers, and Swat allows users to livestream police encounters and file complaints about officers.