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ACLU Unveils New Tool To Monitor Police

ACLU of Missouri "Mobile Justice" app. Screenshoot
(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

When the St. Louis County grand jury completes its investigation into the death of Michael Brown, protests are expected to erupt. And now, the people who participate have a new tool to monitor police.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri unveiled a tool Thursday that allows people to monitor the interactions between police and citizens with their smart phones.

"People have told us they don't feel protected," said Jeffrey Mittman, the ACLU of Missouri's executive director. "This app will empower Missourians who have traditionally felt powerless." 

The "Mobile Justice" app has been in the works for nearly a year. It's very similar to the "Stop and Frisk" app developed by the New York Civil Liberties Union. The purpose is evidence preservation, which is critically important for court cases, Mittman said.

"For example, year after year, in the state of Missouri,  the [Attorney General] releases statistics that show if you are African-American, if you are Latino, you are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be searched," Mittman said. "We don't have the evidence that shows, was this pretextual, was there racially improper language, was there harassment? We need to document that, so it's not a case of he said versus he said."

And, he added, the evidence can also help police departments weed out the bad apples.

What the app does

There are several ways the app works. If the app is in record mode, audio or video from the phone is automatically sent to the ACLU when recording stops. This will prevent officers from deleting evidence of possible wrongdoing from a cell phone.

Users can also file a report about a police interaction that may have violated someone's rights without submitting a recording. The app also has a "witness" function that alerts users when someone else begins to record a police interaction nearby.

Practical and informative

In addition to allowing people to record potential infractions, the app includes a section that tells users about their rights in dealing with the police. In many ways, that information is just as important as the other app functions, Mittman said.

"Members of the public often don't know, what do I say to police? What can they do? When can they stop me? When am I free to go?" he said. "And by providing that information on a tool that everybody has everywhere, we can get information out to the public."

The app is currently available for Android users only. Mittman said an iPhone version is in the works, but he wanted the tool to be available to protesters because the Darren Wilson grand jury decision is looming.

"We know that protesters want a tool where they can say, 'My rights have been violated, here is the evidence,'" Mittman said. "But we want to be clear, this is not targeted at any one community or any one police force."

The app is also available in Mississippi, Nebraska, and Oregon. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.