The new app — called the first of its kind of in the nation — is intended to improve police accountability by turning officer cell phones into body cameras.
A police officer in Rio de Janeiro demos CopCast, an open source mobile app for secure body camera video. (Igarapé Institute)
After an incident of alleged police misconduct, Jersey City Council has approved a one-year pilot program to test the effectiveness of cellphone-based body cameras on law enforcement personnel.
In a 4-2 vote, the council passed a resolution Wednesday that will equip 250 officers with a monitoring app called CopCast. The software comes from the Igarapé Institute, an advocacy group for digital law enforcement tools that first began testing the software with police in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the organization is based. The city hopes to use the software as an alternative to purchasing dedicated body cameras, which can cost departments around $1,000 per unit.
The pilot is a response to an incident on June 4 in which cell phone footage from witnesses captured police officers kicking a man after a police chase. Officers initially believed the man had been involved in the chase and it turned out he had only been a victim that was hurt when the evading vehicle crashed and burst into flames, according to NJ.com. As the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office pursue an investigation into the assault, locals demand increased police accountability.
Hoping to avert future controversies, Jersey City is hoping that the new app can be a tool for accountability. To use the app, officers simply need to download it from the Google Play store, turn it on, and attach their Android phones to their chests. The app can record GPS locations and even allows supervisors to watch live feeds remotely.
On the institute’s website, it states that between 2017 and 2018, it will be collaborating with researchers at the University of Chicago and the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro to analyze data and feedback from Jersey City and military police in Santa Catarina, Brazil. While police body cams are nothing new, what is notable about the app is that it makes the system more affordable by allowing the use of existing smartphones, and is based on open source code that allows the app to be freely used adopted by any police station.
Yet a potential downside noted by civil rights activists is that officers can easily turn the app on or off as they please. Alexander Shalom, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey expressed his doubts in an NJ.com interview.
"If officers have carte blanche to turn the cameras on or off, it almost certainly will not provide the accountability we've been promised," Shalom said.
But because the city is requiring officers to use the app for all police interactions, there is a degree of accountability. The department requires video to accompany every documented incident, and missing video could indicate possible tampering by officers.
National research shows that even if police aren’t wearing body cameras all of the time, police behavior still improves. A 2014-2015 study by Cambridge University found that police complaints dropped drastically after body cameras were introduced. The analysis reviewed complaint statistics from more than 1,800 officers in seven U.S. and U.K. police departments and discovered that complaints dropped from 1,539 to 113 just one year after a body camera program began.
“It may be that by repeated exposure to the surveillance of the cameras, officers changed their reactive behavior on the streets, changes that proved more effective and so stuck,” reported Alex Sutherland, the study’s co-author, in a press release. “With a complaints reduction of nearly 100 percent across the board, we find it difficult to consider alternatives, to be honest."