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The ACLU's Mobile Justice smartphone app is meant to provide the public with a way of video recording and reporting police officers encounters with the public. (the Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

ACLU unveils video recording app for police encounters

(The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

(The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Civil liberties organizations say a new smartphone application will help increase accountability for law enforcement in the wake of a number of high-profile national incidents, including the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

The Mobile Justice smartphone app, offered free of charge by the American Civil Liberties Union,  is meant to provide the public with a way of video recording and reporting police officers encounters with the public, according to Susan Goering, executive director of the organization’s Maryland chapter.

“We now have an even more powerful tool to avoid the police confiscating your phones,” said Goering. “This is a powerful app that Marylanders can use to hold law enforcement agents accountable and now anyone with a smartphone can decide when you see racial profiling or over-policing or police abuse, you can decide to whip out your phone and take a picture — it will be there, taken up to the clouds where it will be protected.”

The release of the application was announced during a news conference Friday at Coppin State University, just blocks from where a riot broke out following the funeral of Gray, a 25 year-old black man who died from injuries suffered while in police custody.

“I don’t think anyone is anti-police,” said Kenneth Morgan a professor in the university’s Urban Studies program. “We’re pro-accountability for the police. This is, I believe, a gigantic leap forward.”

Morgan, who teaches at one of the state’s historically black universities, said that his students are frequently involved in encounters with the police. In one class alone, he said, 75 percent of his students raised their hands when asked if they had been stopped by an officer.

“We serve many students who have had encounters with the police,” Morgan said. “I’ve had many occasions where I’ve seen cellphone cameras snatched away from individuals and broken, quite frankly, by the police. So, this idea of having an app is extremely, extremely important.”

But some in law enforcement question the need for such an app given the ubiquitous nature of cellphone video.

Dave Rose, a vice president for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4 in Baltimore County, said cellphone video “exists like gravity.”

“Is it going to change how policing is done? I don’t think so,” said Rose. “Our guys know when they go to a scene that there’s going to be five or six people shooting video. You can’t go anywhere where there’s not a camera. In the end, I still have to justify my actions as a police officer.”

The app allows users to report interactions between police and the public and also record and submit video to the civil liberty organization’s online storage, preventing video from being lost if a phone is confiscated, tampered with or destroyed by police.

Staff for the group can review the footage and determine if legal action is advised. The public would not be able to see uploaded video.

Users can notify others of ongoing police activity. The app would provide directions to the location.

The announcement Friday is part of slow roll-out of the app nationally from New York to California. Organizers in Maryland said they were unaware of any incident captured so far by the program that led to legal action against a police officer or department.

Rose said the biggest concern is that the civil liberties organization will create a library of videos that only show a small number of inappropriate police activity.

“They’re going to get thousands of videos of police doing their jobs appropriately and they’ll get one that shows an officer doing a bad job, and that’s the one they’ll show the public,” Rose said. “If you’re going to create this library, make it like YouTube and give the public the ability to see every video.”

In recent years courts have re-affirmed the right of civilians to record police activity in public spaces.

Goering said police departments in Maryland and nationally “now understand that it is the citizen’s right to use these phones to make sure that justice is being done.”

Even so, there have been incidents involving various police agencies in Maryland where officers have demanded members of the public stop recording, arrested those who were video recording and even confiscated or destroyed phones and photos and video.

Following the death of Gray and the riots, some city police complained about people showing up to even minor incidents and filming the actions of officers.

Last year, Baltimore County police placed an auxiliary sergeant on administrative duty after he was recorded telling a man that he had lost his Constitutional rights and later pushed the individual, who was filming officers making an arrest in downtown Towson. Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson later said the actions were “incorrect, inappropriate and unnecessary.”

Since then, Rose, the police union official, said the department has sent memos to officers re-affirming the public’s right to video record. He is not aware of any other incidents.

“If you’re in central Towson on college night and a fight breaks out, a bunch of people are going to be filming the fight and it’s going to be all over the Internet,” Rose said. “As long as they’re not interfering or helping the guy out or egging him on, film away. That’s your right.”