'Officer Awareness' Memo: Police Accountability Recording App Could Lead To Dangerous 'Flash Mobs'

by Tim Cushing
Techdirt
Mar. 02, 2015

Your law enforcement panic of the day: an app that automatically uploads recorded footage and forwards it to the ACLU.

New Jersey's ACLU branch put together "Police Tape" back in 2012, an app which allowed anyone to record cops with a press of a button. The app then hid itself while the recording continued. If the recording was interrupted, the app would automatically send the recording to the ACLU. The app also advised those confronted by cops of their rights in various situations.

The app is apparently no longer available, but ACLU-NJ reported 30,000 downloads within the first few months of its availability. Widespread coverage of this police accountability app led to a somewhat overwrought response from (of all places) the Burbank, California Police Department.

"OFFICER AWARENESS," the bulletin yells, before heading into a brief summation of the app's capabilities. It takes a turn for the truly absurd when Lt. Eric Deroian attempts to portray the app as potentially dangerous to officers.
Both apps [including the "stop and frisk" app developed by ACLU-NY] will notify other app users within a defined area if someone has activated their app, with the exact location of the police action. This may result in officer safety issues if community groups are able to pinpoint various police actions, and respond to the location in the form of a flash mob.
First off, let's deal with the why of this app's existence. It is only because officers have routinely (and illegally) confiscated, shut down or deleted recordings from civilians' cell phones that an automatic archival process is needed. Despite being told repeatedly by judges, the DOJ and their own internal policies that citizens have the right to record police officers in public areas, many cops still seem to believe this isn't actually a right but a privilege completely subject to any recorded officer's willingness to oblige.

Because cops doing bad things hate to be held accountable for their actions, they often turn on those recording their actions. And because officers have power, weapons and the benefit of a doubt eternally on their side, it's usually pretty easy to shut down recordings. The tide is slowly turning, but civilians are still severely limited in their options when confronted by a cop who doesn't want to be recorded.

That's why apps like these even exist, and cops have only themselves to blame for this situation.

Now, let's address the inadvertent hilarity of the "flash mob" claim. Even if there were enough people with the app installed in the area, it's highly unlikely a coordinated (and apparently threatening) response would be mounted. The thing about successful flash mobs is that they're usually coordinated ahead of time. The best ones are, anyway. There are some that gel unexpectedly, but flash mobs usually require participants to be at least a little prepared.

Being suddenly alerted about some unexpected police bullshittery isn't generally going to provoke anything more than additional cameras and angry voices. I've seen tons of police video captured by citizens and I have yet to see crowds physically attack officers no matter how much of a beatdown they're putting on some unlucky individual. A lot of yelling and swearing? Yeah. But nothing more "threatening" than that. Even when a cop is choking the life out of someone, everyone stands a few feet away and hurls nothing more dangerous than epithets and criticism.

Here's the other thing: You know who else can "notify [others] in their area" and "pinpoint various police actions?" Cops. And their "flash mobs" usually arrive at high speed with sirens blaring, and armed to the teeth with a variety of lethal (and slightly less-lethal, depending on application) weapons. This "mob" has the force of law behind it, as well as a large number of options citizens don't have -- like departments and unions willing to justify nearly any amount of misconduct, as well as various levels of legal immunity should the "police action" result in a civil lawsuit. They'll also be acting out of "fear for their safety," so the occasional kidney punch/emptied gun magazine will be almost instantly forgiven. All the unfriendly citizen flash mob has is… well, their voices and their cameras. Nothing like bringing a Galaxy 4 to a gun/Taser fight.

Bottom line: there's nothing to fear from police accountability apps like these except the accountability. This is what Lt. Deroian's warning is really about. He closes it by noting that a "suspect" had the app installed on his phone, but leaves the details of this person's crime wholly up to the overactive imaginations of the officers reading this "alert."

A better "Officer Awareness" memo might have addressed the fact that citizens have a right to record and that patrolling OFFICERS should be AWARE their actions have a good chance of being recorded, so try not to violate too many rights/beat down too many "suspects." And be careful out there.

Read the Memo (PDF)













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