When Missouri officials announced last November that Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing Michael Brown, Mbye Njie's Facebook feed became inundated with people arguing over whether Wilson's actions were justified or if he should have been charged. The debate unsettled Njie, an Atlanta insurance salesman and app developer, who wanted a clear answer. He wondered: Could there be an easier way for the public to assess citizen-police interactions that end in death?
Months later, Njie says he has a solution. He's creating an app that will record a video of any interaction a user has with a police officer and automatically send a copy of that recording to three contacts in case something goes badly awry. The recordings will create transparency and avoid the kind of uncertainty that surrounded Brown's death on Aug. 9, 2014, Njie asserts.
Njie's Legal Equalizer app is among others coming to market amid a national debate on excessive force by law enforcement and whether police should be recorded to keep them accountable for their actions. While the shooting of Brown, who was black, by Wilson, who was white, was not recorded, other recent instances of alleged police brutality involving black men have been caught on camera, resulting in charges against the officers involved. The growing call for more transparency has inspired developers like Njie to create apps that will record officers' interactions with the public, allowing civilians to protect themselves even as some officials insist police brutality is not a widespread problem.
Having video evidence of a fatal police encounter could result in greater clarity on how the killing unfolded, said Njie. “A video would have made things a lot clearer,” he said of the Brown case. “We would have known what happened, rather than having to believe the word of this guy or that guy, because that’s what it comes down to: Who do I believe to be more credible?”
Since Brown's death a year ago, a majority of states have put into effect or are considering legislation requiring the use of body cameras to increase police accountability. President Barack Obama has also called for more transparency in law enforcement and encouraged body camera requirements for police. But app makers said people who have run-ins with the police must be able to take matters into their own hands to ensure a record exists of all law enforcement interactions, including in cases where officers turn off their body cameras before making an arrest.
A “Hands Up 4 Justice” app allows people to record police interactions and save the videos to YouTube, while the “I’m Getting Arrested” app allows someone being arrested to instantly send a custom text message to his or her contacts. The “Five-O” app lets someone who interacts with law enforcement review the interaction.
“The argument is video gives more objective evidence for each individual encounter,” said Rich Williams, policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Criminal Justice Program. “It gives people the ability to go back and see how they acted in a certain situation.”
In recent months, the filming of several high-profile police-related fatal shootings has played an important role in whether charges were pursued.
In July, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing was wearing a body camera when he fatally shot Samuel DuBose, a 43-year-old father of 10, after DuBose was stopped for having a missing front license plate. When Ohio prosecutors later announced the indictment of Tensing, they referenced the video showing the traffic stop. In South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager was not wearing a body camera during the shooting of Walter Scott in April, but a bystander shot a video of the killing, and Slager was charged with murder.
In the recent shooting of Christian Taylor, an unarmed black 19-year-old football player from Arlington, Texas, who police stopped after they were called to an auto dealership where Taylor had been seen damaging cars, a surveillance video showed some of Taylor's actions before police arrived, but failed to show the shooting itself. The officer in training who shot Taylor, Brad Miller, was fired from the Arlington Police Department shortly after the Aug. 7 shooting.
— Sage Franch (@theTrendyTechie) August 10, 2015
Still, having a video of a police confrontation does not always lead to indictments. Though a video recording was made when white New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo wrapped his arms around Eric Garner, a black unarmed Staten Island man, in July 2014 while Garner continued to say "I can't breathe," Pantaleo was not indicted in Garner's death.
Civil liberties activists in recent months have reassured the public that recording police officers is legal so long as it doesn't interfere with the officer doing his or her job. What qualifies as “interfering” is not set in stone — some witnesses have been arrested for eavesdropping, harassment and disorderly conduct while filming police, according to NCSL statistics.
Only rarely do police have the right to confiscate someone’s phone, usually if it is considered a piece of evidence. Even when it is considered evidence, police don’t have the right to look at it without a warrant, and they don’t have a right to destroy it or delete footage, said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.
“If we could count on police to follow the law, maybe videotaping wouldn’t be necessary,” Stanley said.
The ACLU has an app of its own to record police encounters, Mobile Justice, but the recording is only sent directly to the ACLU, and the app itself is not available in all states. The ACLU also lays out on its website the rights of photographers in public.
Sending the recording of one’s police encounter to a third party is a good idea, Stanley said. “It shouldn’t be necessary, but the world being the way it is, that additional reassurance is valuable,” Stanley said.
The issue of filming can become complicated, however, when the person filming is the same one actually interacting with a police officer. If police are pursuing someone they believe to be armed and that person reaches for their phone, he could easily be thought to be reaching for a weapon.
“If you’re being chased and suspected of having a weapon and you’re reaching into your pocket, I don’t think that’s as much of a phone issue,” Williams said.
— SiriusXM Urban View (@SXMUrbanView) August 5, 2015
— NBC DFW (@NBCDFW) August 18, 2015
Some law enforcement organizations have come out in support of body cameras for police in recent months. Proponents argue that body cameras can influence behavior positively, making both police and citizens more peaceful in their interactions.
“Being watched adds a different dimension to the conversation,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents the largest American cities.
But law enforcement officials object to the perception that all police officers are irresponsible because of a few notorious cases. Most of the time body cameras prove that police are in the right thing when interacting with citizens, said Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. Police Union.
“What you see are the outliers and the cases where you think, ‘That’s going to be on YouTube,'” Burton said. “What’s going to be on YouTube is when people see something outrageous.”
About 400 of the 3,869 Washington, D.C., police officers have body cameras, Burton said. Eventually, all officers will be outfitted with body cameras.
“They can create all the apps they want to record our interactions,” Burton said.
— Vocativ (@vocativ) August 9, 2015
Njie's app not only sends a video recording of a user’s police interaction to three people, it also sends a message letting them know that the owner has been pulled over or stopped by police, and makes them aware of the person’s location. The app also has a function listing a person’s rights when they are stopped by a police officer.
Having a video allows for someone stopped by police to hold officers accountable — something Njie said he could have used himself when he was pulled over in the past. Njie, who is black, was stopped about four times in a two-month span at about the time it was announced Wilson would not be indicted, in November 2014, another factor that prompted him to create the app.
Of the four times he was pulled over, Njie was only given a ticket once. The other three times, he said, police officers “fished” for something to give him a ticket for, such as not having a seatbelt on while driving.
“Clearly, they didn’t pull me over for any law I broke,” Njie said.
Njie is still crowdfunding to finish developing his app. He is asking for $25,000, and had collected about $5,700 so far, according to his GoFundMe page. While still off his ideal mark for funding, he hopes to have a version of the app ready by the end of September. Once on the market, the app could end the amount of police stops that escalate to unnecessary violence, he said.
"Let's lower the amount of interactions where it grows violent between officers and regular citizens," Njie said.