The ACLU has released three more state-specific versions of its “Mobile Justice” app. The app, which sends audio and video recordings directly to the ACLU’s servers to preserve them in case of any law enforcement “interruptions”, is now available in Maryland, Minnesota and Virginia.
This time around, the panic surrounding the apps seems to have subsided somewhat. Back in 2012, the release of a New Jersey-based app for recording police encounters resulted in a California police department’s speculation that the app’s ability to notify other users would lead to officer-endangering “flash mobs.”
Perhaps the inevitability of being recorded has finally sunk in. There’s no shortage of footage of police interactions available and the addition of the ACLU’s app isn’t going to cause a spike in citizen recordings. With many photo and video apps already synced to cloud storage, attempts to delete incriminating footage will be unsuccessful in many cases.
For the most part, law enforcement representatives and officials are greeting the new releases with shrugs, if not open acceptance.
In Virginia, sane comments greeted the ACLU’s announcement.
“I certainly don’t have a problem with it,” said Chesterfield County Police Chief Thierry Dupuis. “The vast majority of our police officers do a great job. If for some reason we have an officer that isn’t, we want to know about it,” said Dupuy.
But Dupuis says if you are going to use the app, record positive police interactions too, and don’t leave anything out.
“If you’re going to film, include the entire video,” said Dupuis.
In Maryland, where Baltimore law enforcement officials are blaming the city’s climbing murder rate on the “Ferguson Effect,” reactions are still mostly positive.
“Maryland state troopers are held to a high standard of accountability for their actions in the performance of their duties. Our troopers understand the importance of video and welcome the opportunity to display their professionalism during interactions with the citizens we serve,” Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said.
Baltimore County police released a statement, saying: “The Baltimore County Police Department respects citizens’ right to record. Citizens record us every day. This application does not change our practices.”
Another Maryland law enforcement agency actually welcomed the additional accountability the app could bring.
47 ABC showed the app to Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis and he doesn’t see a problem with it at all.
Sheriff Lewis continues, “Anything I can do better professionalize the Wicomico County Sheriff Office and our profession, I’m all for it. I don’t want rogue police officers working for me.”
Minnesota law enforcement officials, however, seem to be pulling their talking points from 2012’s “flash mob” memo. Well, more specifically, certain law enforcement-related officials are taking issue with the ACLU’s app. The regular police — as in law enforcement agencies and not law enforcement officers’ putative representatives — seem to have no problem with the new app.
The Minneapolis police department wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the app, but spokesman John Elder said in a statement that officers are already accustomed to working under surveillance from cell phones and public or private cameras. He also noted that the city is in the process of rolling out a police body cam program, expected to begin early next year, which will provide more visual evidence of how police interact with the public.
It’s the police unions that view the ACLU’s “Mobile Justice” app as a threat to officers.
“If you create a crowd, it is possible that the crowd could turn on an officer,” said Andy Skoogman, spokesman for the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. “The mere presence of the crowd could easily make the officer feel intimidated which can quickly increase the tension of the interaction. We have seen such a scenario play out many times.”
Yes, it’s the old “flash mob” argument. The app only notifies other users of the app who happen to be in the same area, and the ACLU’s app isn’t exactly Candy Crush. Chances of the app producing an antagonistic crowd of any size are slim-to-none. Chances of a police interaction in a public area resulting in a crowd not entirely aligned with law enforcement remains at nearly 100%. So, officers should be used to dealing with antagonistic crowds as it’s routinely part of the job. That the union would preemptively excuse an “intimidated” officer’s reactions is telling.
But it gets even dumber. Another police union spokesman echoed Skoogman’s ridiculous assertion.
“It will almost certainly create public safety issues,” said St. Paul Police Federation President David Titus, in a statement. “Encouraging people to flock to an unsecure and possibly dangerous police incident is not responsible or logical. … The ACLU app may require a larger police presence to de-escalate some situations, an outcome neither law enforcement nor the community desire.”
Once again, it’s highly unlikely the app will draw a crowd larger than any such public scene would. But the St. Paul Police Federation isn’t limiting itself to these paranoid theories. It’s contemplating asking the courts to block the app.
The Saint Paul police officers union is looking into whether legal action is possible against the American Civil Liberties Union for a new smartphone app that notifies subscribers of in-progress police actions, so they can witness whether civil rights are being violated.
I’m going to hazard a guess that, while any legal action is theoretically possible, very few of them have a chance at successfully preventing the distribution of the app. The app records video and uploads it to a server — something countless other cellphone camera apps do already. Cellphones are also communication devices, which means any of them could be used to notify others of an ongoing situation. Other social media apps have a far greater reach than the ACLU’s app, which limits notifications only to those with the app installed on their phones, and provides the users with the option to limit notifications to only certain people, like close friends or family members.
At the heart of the matter is the recording of police officers performing their public duties, something most courts have agreed is protected First Amendment activity. It’s going to be tough to convince a judge that any fears for officer safety or the privacy bystanders, witnesses, etc. trumps the Constitution. Not that this will necessarily stop the union from blowing its members’ money on ridiculous lawsuits. Hopefully, if it does choose to pursue litigation, its members will realize the union really doesn’t speak for them and is only interested in walling off law enforcement from the public and ensuring its worst members don’t lose their positions or power.