By Eunice Lee
For years, the American Civil Liberties Union has aggressively tried to police the police, filing suit after suit against law enforcement agencies it believed crossed the line.
Now, the ACLU’s New Jersey chapter has gone beyond the courtroom, introducing a smartphone application to allow state residents to secretly record police stops, protect the recordings from being deleted by displeased officers and report the incidents to civil rights groups.
“This app provides an essential tool for police accountability,” said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey.
The arrival of the app, called Police Tape, follows some high-profile cases in which police have clashed with citizens over their recording of officers. It also speaks to the notion that, anywhere, any time — whether it’s by a police department’s security camera or a motorist’s cell phone — everyone can be recorded.
Citizens have been hassled and even arrested after recording police officers in public places, said Alexander Shalom, ACLU New Jersey’s policy counsel. At times, their phones have been taken away and recordings deleted, he said.
“Police often videotape civilians and civilians have a constitutionally protected right to videotape police,” Shalom said. “When people know they’re being watched, they tend to behave well.”
The app, which debuts only for Android devices but will be available for iPhones later this month, is simple to use and can be downloaded at aclu-nj.org/app. It opens to a screen with three buttons: video recording, audio recording and a tutorial on knowing your rights.
The app’s signature feature is its ability to operate in “stealth mode” while recording. When you start video recording, the screen goes black, as if it’s off. When recording audio, the app automatically minimizes and disappears.
The issue of recording police on smartphones has drawn controversy in Newark, where then 16-year-old Khaliah Fitchette recorded two officers aiding a man on a public bus in March 2010. Police removed Fitchette from the bus and handcuffed her after she refused to stop filming, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the teen by the ACLU and the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice last March. After a three-hour ordeal, Fitchette was released to her mother, the lawsuit says.
New Jersey is only the second state to have this type of app available to smartphone users, Shalom said. The app developer, a watchdog group called OpenWatch, calls these types of programs “reverse surveillance.”
New York Civil Liberties Union introduced a similar smartphone app last month called “Stop and Frisk Watch,” a reference to the New York Police Department’s controversial search practices.
Recordings are protected from erasure because it’s not readily apparent how to delete without going through a multi-step process. Incidents sent to the ACLU via the app get reviewed and also saved to an external server. The iPhone version will only have an audio recording option.
Chris Tyminski, longtime president of Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 183, which represents Essex County sheriff’s officers, said an app like this can “blindside” a law enforcement officer but maintained, “We have nothing to hide.”