Asked and Answered . . .

Rodd Monts on ACLU’s ‘Mobile Justice MI’ App

By Steve Thorpe

Police treatment of suspects and prisoners has been making headlines recently, often because a bystander used their phone or other electronic device to record those actions. In some cases the recorded footage differed substantially from the official account offered by police. The ACLU of Michigan is offering Mobile Justice MI, a mobile-device application that allows you to record and report police abuse with the push of a button. It’s available in both Apple and Android versions. Rodd Monts is a field director for the American Civil Liberties Union tasked with managing advocacy efforts to preserve human rights and constitutional principles. His responsibilities include building support for issue campaigns and overseeing community organizing. The school-to-prison pipeline and juvenile life without parole issues are two major areas of focus for his work.

Thorpe: What was the origin of the app? Can you give a tip of the hat to the person most responsible?

Credit for the Mobile Justice smart phone application concept goes to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). My colleagues there contracted with Quadrant 2 to develop the app in response to the “stop and frisk” policy adopted in New York by the city’s police department. The NYCLU launched a campaign to end the discriminatory practice and wanted to equip residents in the city with a tool they hoped would result in greater documentation of suspected misconduct.

The NYCLU reported some 30,000 downloads of its app in the first year. They cited a 33 percent reduction in stop and frisk incidents in New York City and said that, despite the concerns expressed by the New York Police Department about curtailing the practice, crime stats did not change. The NYCLU noted that the NYPD posted flyers in their staff lounges reminding police that they were being watched, and now includes on its website video recorded using the app of officers giving them the finger. The NYCLU, along with other advocates, used the momentum after the production of the app to get the New York City Council to pass the Community Safety Act—effectively prohibiting all profiling practices by local law enforcement. 

As a result of the success of the Stop and Frisk app, the ACLU of Michigan joined with six other affiliates (Missouri, North Carolina, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oregon, and Southern California) to develop a similar tool. During the development process, we decided to add additional features that would allow us to send information to users as well as to receive intake. Subsequently, we worked with Quadrant 2 to create Mobile Justice Michigan as the first 2.0 version of the application.

Thorpe: Tell us how the app works.

Mobile Justice Michigan allows users to record video of encounters they witness between law enforcement officials and individuals, and to send that video and/or a report about the incident directly to the ACLU of Michigan. The content is reviewed regularly by our legal intake staff and processed in a manner similar to that of other complaints individuals submit.

There is a “test” feature, with a button placed prominently on the main screen that we encourage users to try, rather than to randomly use the “record” feature and send us useless video.

The app also includes a “know your rights” section with important information about what the protections they have as citizens are, and a “witness” function that allows users to be notified of encounters taking place nearby involving others who have the app. The 2.0 features allow us to push out video and audio files to Mobile Justice Michigan users, along with text messages and web site content to keep them apprised of important civil rights and civil liberties issues.

Additionally, the app is available in multiple languages. It was important to me to have the content translated into Spanish and in Arabic because of abuse complaints at the hands both of local law enforcement and federal immigration and border agents coming from Hispanic and Arab communities.

Thorpe: What is the “Witness” feature and how might it be used?

The “witness” feature allows users to receive an alert when others in their area use Mobile Justice Michigan so that they can go to that location and also record the incident if they are so inclined. A notification message is sent with an active GPS-enabled map detailing where the encounter is taking place. This feature is especially useful for community groups that monitor law enforcement activity.

Thorpe: Some law enforcement officers may not like being filmed. What advice does the ACLU offer to citizens who choose to record police interactions?

We all have the right to film, photograph or record law enforcement officials while they are conducting police business. We advise people to use good judgment relative to their safety and potential interference with officers trying to enforce the law. Users should always maintain a safe distance.

Further, in some instances, officers may not know about the public’s right to observe and record them or they may simply disregard those rights. Recognizing this, we do warn users that recording police could result in an arrest or may lead to physical altercations. Everyone should take the appropriate steps to ensure their personal safety if confronted by police while recording.

Thorpe: Citizens recording police actions has become interwoven with the public’s perception of policing. Has this made the ACLU’s mission easier or more difficult?

From my perspective, the current movement to end police misconduct is helped by the discourse. Discussions about the app and policing — both in the community and in law enforcement circles, and whether positive or negative — is important. Most good cops don’t want to work with bad cops and as a nation of laws we need to have confidence that the police will come if needed, even in communities where little trust in law enforcement exists. 

But as long as debate about the necessity of this type of tool continues the ACLU has an opportunity to elevate understanding of the value of the lives that have been lost and those that potentially hang in the balance. That, in my mind, is the end game. And if we are able to increase recognition that the black or Latino or Arab man seen being mistreated are equal, innocent, victims worthy of our compassion then we have moved the ball. Then everyone should be outraged when these senseless incidents occur.
Progress in that regard will ultimately make the ACLU’s work to protect civil rights and civil liberties easier. 

Thorpe: How do you see electronic documentation of police actions evolving? What might we see next?

That’s a good question. We are, relatively speaking, early on in the evolution of monitoring apps and body-worn cameras and there remains considerable debate about the value of these because of tangential issues. Police officers complain they are overworked, underpaid, unjustly scrutinized and underappreciated, so I get the pushback from many of them who say that electronic tools to monitor them more amounts to more piling on. But shining light on truth preserves the best interest of the common good.
I also appreciate those in law enforcement who understand that having cameras present can help prevent potential misconduct as well as provide validation of both sides of the story in the event of a questionable encounter. I have said that law enforcement officials who claim a commitment to constitutional policing, like Chief Craig here in Detroit has done publicly, should welcome these types of tools. I am hopeful that this pushes more officials to take a position.

In terms of what’s next for technology … I think the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles is worth watching.  People have generally referred to them as drones. The term UAVs has become common among law enforcement, at a time when concerns over the militarization of police makes using such nomenclature advantageous. Camera-equipped UAVs are used by many police agencies for select investigative and emergency response purposes, and they serve as a tool for monitoring police in community as well. Of course this raises concerns about unwanted surveillance, and it should. That’s why in addition to evolving technologies, I also think we will continue to see a progressive stream of privacy laws in coming years. (By the way, we recently worked with Michigan State Police on its UAV policy).