On the the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre last year, I pointed out how personal technology and social media have enabled just about anyone to “be their own Tank Man,” a reference to the famous unnamed man who put himself in front of a column of Chinese tanks. You needn’t put yourself in harm’s way, as the man in Beijing did. It’s easier than ever to utilize open-records laws (getting the authorities to abide by them is another matter), record on-duty police, access reams of data and disseminate information online.
Here are a couple of great examples of regular people putting their specialized skills to work to curb government abuse. First, from the Seattle Stranger:
For most of their lives, Eric Rachner and Phil Mocek had no strong feelings about police. Mocek, who grew up in Kansas, said he regarded police officers as honorable civil servants, like firefighters. Both chose careers as programmers: Rachner, 39, is an independent cyber-security expert, while Mocek, 40, works on administrative software used by dentists.
But through their shrewd use of Washington’s Public Records Act, the two Seattle residents are now the closest thing the city has to a civilian police-oversight board. In the last year and a half, they have acquired hundreds of reports, videos, and 911 calls related to the Seattle Police Department’s internal investigations of officer misconduct between 2010 and 2013. And though they have only combed through a small portion of the data, they say they have found several instances of officers appearing to lie, use racist language, and use excessive force—with no consequences. In fact, they believe that the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) has systematically “run interference” for cops. In the aforementioned cases of alleged officer misconduct, all of the involved officers were exonerated and still remain on the force.
“We’re trying to do OPA’s job for them because OPA was so explicitly not interested in doing their own job,” said Rachner.
Among some of Rachner and Mocek’s findings: a total of 1,028 SPD employees (including civilian employees) were investigated between 2010 and 2013. (The current number of total SPD staff is 1,820.) Of the 11 most-investigated employees—one was investigated 18 times during the three-year period—every single one of them is still on the force, according to SPD.
Both Rachner and Mocek took action after their own unfortunate encounters with law enforcement.
The other story comes from the Baton Rouge Advocate:
As he watched news reports of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in August, LSU senior software engineering student Elbis Bolton began forming an idea.
What if there were a central hub where everyday people could upload photos or videos of questionable police behavior? And what if he could put those witnesses’ photos and videos immediately into the hands of journalists?
Bolton teamed up with senior journalism student Wilborn Nobles, and the two created such a resource, an app known as the Police Officer Watchdog Event Reporter — POWER, for short. It is available on phones with Android operating systems, and the creators are planning to introduce a version compatible with iPhones . . .
The POWER app allows users to submit their photos and videos with a summary of what happened, where and when the incident occurred, and which law enforcement agency was involved. Nobles and Bolton haven’t received any submissions of police activity yet, but they plan to review submissions to filter out spam before distributing the submissions to newsrooms. They’re working with others at LSU to determine how to verify questionable submissions, but they may also leave the decision to individual newsrooms.
There are existing apps that allow you to record the police (handy guide to them here). And the American Civil Liberties Union has an app that helps you report incidents to that organization. The POWER app still has some logistics to work out. But as far as I know, it’s the first app that aims to send footage of incidents and witness statements directly to journalists.