Jennifer S. Mann / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. (MCT) — People who feel their rights are being violated by police will be able to record and instantly send a video of it to the ACLU using a new smartphone app available in some states.
The app also permits the user to summon others to the scene to observe, to file an instant complaint to the ACLU and to review constitutional rights.
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said Thursday the idea is to help ensure that police stops are conducted properly — and to provide evidence for court if they’re not.
“We know most police are very consistent in doing their jobs properly,” Mittman said at a news conference. “But for those few bad apples, this puts them on notice.”
He said complaints of police harassment have spiked significantly since the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 and the resulting protests. But the underlying issues aren’t new, he said, citing an annual state report that suggests some police forces stop a disproportionate number of blacks.
“This is a problem throughout our country that we all know about,” he said.
ACLU of Missouri joined ACLU affiliates in three other states — Mississippi, Oregon and Nebraska — in the app’s roll-out. It is currently available only for Android phones, with plans to offer it ultimately for iPhones as well.
Mittman said instant transmission of the video means an officer cannot just seize a phone and delete it. But he urged people to obey if police order them to stop recording.
In a statement reacting to the ACLU’s announcement, St. Louis County Police Sgt. Brian Schellman said his agency “agrees with the ACLU that everyone should know what their rights are when interacting with police, and this app is another way for them to do so.”
Ferguson and St. Louis police did not respond to requests for comment.
This is the same technology the ACLU used to address concerns of racial profiling in stop-and-frisk policing in New York. The ACLU said that app has been downloaded more than 30,000 times since its release in 2012. In the same time period, he said, street stops by police declined by more than half.
Mittman said the announcement’s timing is unrelated to an impending decision from a St. Louis County grand jury on whether to issue any charges against Wilson. But if protests do erupt, as many have suggested, he said he expects the new app to get heavy use.
Based on an ACLU suit, a judge recently ordered the Missouri Highway Patrol and St. Louis County police to stop arresting people who do not keep moving during demonstrations. On Wednesday, the city of Ferguson agreed not to enforce the so-called “five-second rule.”
The “failure to disperse” charge authorities used applies “at the scene of an unlawful assembly, or at the scene of a riot.” The ACLU argued that police were using it to quell free speech.
“These violations of constitutional rights must stop,” Mittman said.
The ACLU earlier reached a federal court agreement with the same agencies over the right to record police interactions. That suit was on behalf of a journalist with the Argus Media Group who was ordered over a loudspeaker to stop filming Ferguson protests.
The agreement says public events may be recorded “without abridgement unless it obstructs the activity or threatens the safety of others, or physically interferes with the ability of law enforcement officers to perform their duties.”
Many of the demonstrators have used live streaming video and Twitter from their phones as a way to organize, communicate and keep pressure on authorities.
Julia Ho of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, a grassroots group, said any tool that helps connect protesters to legal advocacy is a plus.
“We definitely fully support all the efforts of the ACLU, and more specifically, any tool that allows grassroots organizing to occur around police brutality,” she said.
They are not the only ones to grasp the power of video. St. Louis County police have been spotted recording the protests.
“Filming is a way our department can hold everyone on scene accountable, police and citizens,” Schellman said. “Oftentimes, videos used, such as Vine, are shown in quick clips, with no context. Filming interactions between police and citizens helps us put then entire scope of a contact between police and citizens in context.”
–Jennifer S. Mann
St. Louis Post-Dispatch