Still from a video made by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California about the ACLU of California’s new cellphone app, Mobile Justice CA
Youtube/ACLU of Southern California

They were tragedies caught on video. 

Almost a year ago, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot and killed by Cleveland police officers within two seconds of the officers arriving on the scene; in April of this year, Freddie Gray died from an injury suffered while in police custody in Baltimore; in the same month, Walter L. Scott was shot in the back eight times while fleeing a police officer during a traffic stop in South Carolina. Video footage of Tamir’s, Gray’s and Scott’s interactions with police led to terminations or criminal charges, outrage, protests and discussions focused on police violence and race.

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“We should know how police are doing their jobs, because we give them tremendous power, we give them power no other government official has—to stop somebody, to arrest somebody and even to kill,” Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, told The Root. “If we think they are not doing it in accordance with our values, then we have to demand that it change.”

One thing that could help push that change is the act of recording these interactions between citizens and police.

This year the ACLU of California, the joint branch of the ACLU of Southern California and the two other ACLU affiliates in the state, launched an app to make it safe and easy for citizens to exercise their right to record police interactions. The free app, Mobile Justice CA, allows Android and iPhone users to record and automatically send video of police encounters to ACLU servers, preserving the footage even if officers try to destroy the phone or delete the video. A copy of the video is also saved to the user’s camera roll.

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Villagra revealed that the goal was to get 100,000 downloads in a year, a goal the group exceeded in five months with over 160,000 downloads. Five additional ACLU offices—Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York and Oregon—have launched the app. Comments in the Google Play and Apple stores indicate that users want to know when the app will be available in their state.

“I think there is a big group coming on very soon, a group of about nine or 10 affiliates,” Villagra said. “I want people to know that it will hopefully be coming to their state very soon.”

There are three main functions of the app: record, report and witness. After users record an encounter, they can submit a confidential incident report, including details of what they observed, which can also be submitted without a video. The witness feature allows users to receive notifications in real time to indicate when people around them are recording an incident.

Mobile Justice CA can also be used as a tool for police accountability and transparency, especially since the release of police body-camera footage is often determined by police departments.

“The app puts a certain amount of power and control back in individual’s hands. It’s like the people’s body camera, and the people get to control whether the video gets released or not, not the police department,” Villagra said.

The ACLU will review the incident reports and videos submitted to decide whether to provide legal assistance. The organization may also publicize incidents of law-enforcement misconduct and share videos and other information with community organizations or the public.

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“We’re hoping to create a really powerful deterrent effect. If police officers think that there are a lot of people out there with this app, and that they won’t be able to delete the video, it creates a real incentive for them to be on their best behavior,” Villagra said.

Other features of the app include a Know Your Rights library and alerts, which provide up-to-date information on current issues, campaigns and upcoming events. Users are also able to review and sign petitions to local government officials, permitting them to take action on issues directly affecting their community.

“It isn’t just an app that records the police. It basically includes all of your rights around filming the police, what’s acceptable for the police to do and what’s not acceptable, so it’s a teaching tool as well,” Patrisse Cullors, director of truth and reinvestment at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, told The Root.

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On Oct. 3 the Ella Baker Center kicked off an eight-day #CaravanForJustice event in partnership with the ACLU of California. The dayslong road trip features survivors of police violence and grassroots organizers traveling throughout California to mobilize communities of color against police brutality. Cullors is working closely with the ACLU to spread awareness about the Mobile Justice CA app and to host educational segments at every stop.

When asked how users should decide when to use the app, Cullors said, “Whenever someone is being pulled over, whenever you see young people being stopped and frisked, you should always pull over, step out of your car, as long as it’s within your means, and record.” She added, “Any interaction can become deadly, and we’ve seen it over and over again.”