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Jun 19 2012

Stop and Frisk: There’s an App for That

This is pretty freaking cool. The New York Civil Liberties Union has released a cell phone app that lets people use their cell phones to record the police when they stop and frisk someone on the streets, and sends it directly to the NYCLU servers so the police can’t destroy the evidence (as they so often have tried to do).

The New York Civil Liberties Union today unveiled “Stop and Frisk Watch” – a free and innovative smart phone application that will empower New Yorkers to monitor police activity and hold the NYPD accountable for unlawful stop-and-frisk encounters and other police misconduct.

“Stop and Frisk Watch is about empowering individuals and community groups to confront abusive, discriminatory policing,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “The NYPD’s own data shows that the overwhelming majority of people subjected to stop-and-frisk are black or Latino, and innocent of any wrongdoing. At a time when the Bloomberg administration vigorously defends the status quo, our app will allow people to go beyond the data to document how each unjustified stop further corrodes trust between communities and law enforcement.”

Stop and Frisk Watch is available in English and Spanish, thanks to a translation by Make the Road New York. Initially available for Android phones, an iPhone version will be released later this summer. The app allows bystanders to fully document stop-and-frisk encounters and alert community members when a street stop is in progress.

Here’s a video about it:

20 comments

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  1. 1
    Tualha

    This could get interesting. Imagine: the cops start stopping and frisking somewhere. Someone nearby reports it. Others read about it, see it’s happening right now, show up, start recording. The crowd grows. Dozens of people, watching and recording New York’s foulest being the assholes they are.

  2. 2
    scenario

    I like this a lot. I wonder if people will film good interactions so they can show how it should be done. Giving it directly to the NYCLU is smart. They’re a lot tougher to intimidate and BS.

  3. 3
    Jasper of Maine

    I wonder how long till it gets crapped up by people sending stupid things.

  4. 4
    Bronze Dog

    This kind of reminds me of one anecdote I heard from a reporter who was covering the civil rights movement. A mob was getting irate with reporters seeking out the truth of what was going on, and had cornered the storyteller. He bluffed, pulling out his microphone, hooked up to a recorder (not a transmitter) in his pocket, “You can do what you want to me, but know that the world is going to hear it.” They backed off.

    Now if only we can get dirty cops to feel ashamed when the transmission of their actions is real.

  5. 5
    eric

    Jasper – (1) computer memory is relatively cheap. (2) Assuming they support individuals trying to bring cases rather than bringing cases themselves, they only really need to store a given video for a few days. Enough time to have the victim contact them after the event. (3) Warts and limitations included, its still a welcome capability, and better than not having it.

  6. 6
    daved

    Jasper’s point is well-taken, however. For example, suppose that this app starts revealing enough bad behavior by the NYPD that the NYPD starts to get very upset.

    There are over 20,000 NYPD members. If a significant fraction of them downloaded the app and started uploading crap to the NYCLU’s servers, it could overwhelm them. (I haven’t tried to do the calculations to see whether that’s a realistic concern, but I bet it is.) Possibly the NYCLU has means in place to throttle this, but it’s a possible distributed denial-of-service attack.

  7. 7
    puppygod

    Oh, come on. Even cops can’t be that stupid. You see, to do as you propose they would have to download an app and permit it to access their smartphone camera, memory and to send the video online. Not to mention NYCLU would get phonelist of 20.000 officers. All this price to pay to inconvenience NYCLU for several hours until they set filters and purge servers? Beyond stupid.

  8. 8
    frog

    George Orwell foresaw a world of 24/7 monitoring, but never predicted the capability would be in the hands of people not on the side of the jackbooted thugs.

    Human ingenuity is always double-edged, and sometimes that’s a good thing.

  9. 9
    uncephalized

    @Jasper #3

    All you’d need is an anonymous but unique hardware identifier embedded in any video files sent to NYCLU. Any videos flagged as spam would then trigger a deletion of that user’s videos from the server to preserve space and bandwidth. Future transmissions from the same user could be blocked from uploading without the spammer even knowing it was happening, giving him no incentive to try to circumvent the ban because he would be unaware of it.

    Idiots get to keep getting their idiotic jollies sending unsolicited videos of jerking themselves off, and no one needs to actually see it. Win-win.

  10. 10
    Leo T.

    @9: That’s certainly a possibility, but the app as it currently exists does not request the necessary permissions. Mind you, it’s probably possible to work around the fact by writing an installation-specific identifier to the SD card or app storage space, which should still mostly accomplish what you’re saying.

    Although I’m pretty sure such an approach would be both overkill and too likely to have negative effects — if someone flagged as a spammer wound up recording actual police brutality, after all, it would not be a good thing to have that video automatically deleted.

  11. 11
    Troy Britain

    Why not take it a step further and have all police officers be required to have audio/video recording devices running on their person while on duty? The electronics are cheap and miniaturized enough to where this is totally doable.

    That way we won’t have to depend on people with cell phone cameras happening by, or an incident occurring in front of fixed surveillance cameras. Everything a cop does on duty will be available for review. It would keep cops honest and provide evidence against misbehaving suspects.

    If cops don’t like it they can find a different line of work.

  12. 12
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    @ Troy Britain:

    Because you can’t use off the shelf items for these purposes. They need to be highly reliable and hardened* – which is still problematic because the systems civil servants use (like the police), even purpose-built stuff, fails. So, you have issues where recording equipment will fail, and instances where the cops turn it off and claim it failed. So, for official deployment, the system would be neither cheap nor wholly reliable anyway (like existing dash-cams and interrogation recording). What it will do is generally support the police version of events without catching much police misconduct.

    *Hardened in the senses of devices withstanding somewhat extreme environments and forces, and running good code where the OS notes and stores every bit of hardware diagnostic info and all access to the data/software. (Which is reliably logged on servers somewhere there is no one who is going to tamper with that, either.)

    I’m all for cops recording stuff on their own, and even more for the general citizenry doing it. Making it a part of policy and operations (like many regulations) will be gamed by those who are meant to be restricted by it. It would also be attacked as a liberal pork barrel scheme and expensive boondoggle wherever problems occur with the technological implementation. Could it be done well? Almost certainly, but usually not, given the nature of corporations and governments.

  13. 13
    mithrandir

    @frog #8: I believe I’ve seen personal video recording via cell phones, etc. (especially when used to record police in action) referred to as Little Brother.

  14. 14
    Didaktylos

    @frog, #8

    George Orwell was dying of TB at the time so it might have coloured his outlook. For a near-contemporary and more realistic view of how total surveillance and information exchange actually works against the interests of tyranny, check out “Sam Hall” by Poul Anderson.

  15. 15
    puppygod

    Why not take it a step further and have all police officers be required to have audio/video recording devices running on their person while on duty? The electronics are cheap and miniaturized enough to where this is totally doable.

    Well, actually there is commercially available Axon Flex camera, made by Taser, which does exactly that. I also recall that Swiss firm Brügger and Thomet is either developing or already developed similar system. It is indeed doable and, IMHO, all on-duty activity of law enforcement should be recorded by default. Of course appropriate legislation should be implemented to protect privacy, but positives in this case outweight negatives (which not always is the case with other forms of law enforcement surveillance).

    Here’s a link to NYTimes article. Unfortunately, I’m yet to hear about any purchases – for some reason no LE agency is to eager to implement such solution.

  16. 16
    puppygod

    Fuck NYTimes, the article is now behind paywall – it wasn’t so half an hour ago. Sigh.

    Anyway, here’s link to Taser page on Axon Flex.

  17. 17
    valhar2000

    I’m very interested in seeing how this works out, and also in seeing what the NYPD tries to do to shut it down.

    While they may try to be sneaky, as Puppygod suggests, I think their first instinct will be to declare it illegal, attempt to arrest everyone involved. The second step would probably be to come up with some bullshit reason to get a search warrant to search the premises of the NYCLU, take every computer they can find and get busy deleting all the data on them before the NYCLU can retaliate.

  18. 18
    jesse

    @Didaktylos–

    Seconding the “Sam Hall” love. The interesting thing there was it proposed 1960s technology — data tapes and such. The only thing he had that didn’t turn out to be real was quizzing people under hypnosis.

    That said, it’s also worth mentioning that Anderson didn’t get the idea of distributed records — the main character, Thornberg, mentions that when he made up a person and inserted him into the system, it didn’t take a lot of work to gloss over pretty major things. It makes me wonder what would happen if an enterprising hacker did that on a large scale, but then I realized that the records we use currently aren’t integrated that way and so it’s actually tougher. That is, the DMV info is at the state level and the passport is held by the State Department, et cetera. That’s why tracking people even now isn’t always so easy.

  19. 19
    eric

    daved:

    There are over 20,000 NYPD members. If a significant fraction of them downloaded the app and started uploading crap to the NYCLU’s servers, it could overwhelm them.

    Have to agree with puppygod – come on. That’d have to be one seriously dumb organization to peform a mass denial of service attack using their own registered accounts and not expect to be caught and punished for it.

    Valhar2000:

    I think their first instinct will be to declare it illegal, attempt to arrest everyone involved. The second step would probably be to come up with some bullshit reason to get a search warrant to search the premises of the NYCLU, take every computer they can find and get busy deleting all the data on them before the NYCLU can retaliate.

    I could see them trying your ‘second step’ against an individual. Against a well-funded law firm? That strikes me as legal suicide. Not only would NYCLU know how to make them pay for it, and not only would it be fairly easy for them to save the files on nonlocal servers, but remember that judges and prosecutors come out of the legal profession, too – an unjustified raid on lawyers to steal/delete evidence is not likely to win much sympathy with any part of the judicial branch.

  20. 20
    valhar2000

    Eric:

    You are probably right.

    I guess a more likely alternative is that the city will be ordered by a court to pay damages to a handful of defendants, but the general population will ignore or justify it just like they’ve ignored and justified every other case of police misconduct so far. In other word,s they’ll rely of the stupidity of America: a safe bet if ever there was one.

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