Racial Profiling and Police Brutality: Can Safety Apps Keep Justice within Reach?

On: September 21, 2016
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About Alfrida Martis

Facebook Banner for the #KiesEenKant crowdfunding campaign

Facebook Banner for the #KiesEenKant crowdfunding campaign

Racial Profiling and Police Brutality: Can Safety Apps Keep Justice within Reach?
In this digital society, it is almost unthinkable to leave the house without a mobile phone. Apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are perfect for everyday conversations between loved ones. But what kind of mobile apps can one use during emergencies? For example, if one was to find oneself in a nasty situation with the police in The Netherlands.

Encounters with the police can be traumatizing for people of colour and/or from religious minorities who are more likely to be stopped and searched, and mistreated by the police, than white people. This phenomena is called racial profiling. It is used by the police to stop and search someone, solely on the basis of a person’s skin colour and/or (presumed) ethnicity or religion. What if one was stopped by the police for no reason, other than the colour of one’s skin and the fancy car one was driving? This actually happened to the black Dutch rapper Typhoon and the black Dutch goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, who were both pulled over by the cops for having a wrong ‘profile’. In other words: black men cannot afford to own fancy cars, so they must be involved in criminal activities and must be pulled over. Both men immediately took to social media to document and share their wrongful arrests. It did not take long before their posts sparked a major public debate on racial profiling and policy brutality in The Netherlands. What if unlike these men, users are not famous and do not have a large social media following, but still want to document their wrongful arrest and file a complaint against the police? This is where safety apps come in.

Safety Apps
Safety apps are nothing new. A quick search on tech blogs will reveal that over the years, numerous apps have been developed that can alert users’ friends when they are in immediate danger or put them straight into contact with emergency services, via a built-in “panic button”. Obviously Facebook could not stay behind and had to join the trend of personal safety apps. In October 2014 the Facebook Safety Check Tool was launched, which was originally meant to let users’ friends know they are safe in the event of a natural disaster. The Safety Check Tool quickly garnered everybody’s attention after it was used during the Paris attacks in November 2015.

However, safety apps that can be used during wrongful and/or violent arrests to help keep law enforcement accountable and protect civilians’ rights are only now just emerging. #KiesEenKant (Dutch for “choose a side”) is a crowdfunding campaign, launched in April 2016, by the Dutch organisation Control Alt Delete that combats racial profiling and police brutality.

The aim of the #KiesEenKant campaign was to push civilians into taking a stand against the wrongdoings of the law enforcement, i.e. choosing to be on the good side and not on the side of the oppressor. The yellow campaign banner clearly shows the ideological meaning behind the app’s development: law enforcement is symbolized by handcuffs, while civilians who fight against racial profiling and police brutality are symbolized by the peace sign. The campaign came to an end in July 2016 after Control Alt Delete managed to collect 25.781 euros. This money will be used for the development of what will be the first Dutch safety app of its kind. The new app will not only help users document their arrest with videos and audio recordings so they can provide evidence while they file their complaints, but they will also be provided with legal support.

Privacy Concerns
Control Alt Delete is following in the footsteps of the UK-based app Y-stop, and the US-based app Mobile Justice that were developed in 2015. Both apps are focused on three main features: record, report and connect with legal support. The Mobile Justice app also allows users to file a complaint without images/sound and it will even continue to record when a phone screen gets locked. Both apps allow users to choose whether they wish to report to the police directly or whether they would like the organisation behind the app to file the complaint on their behalf. Complaints can also be filed anonymously and users can also report arrests as a witness. These features could raise concerns with regards to privacy and data collection. The information users provide needs to be captured and controlled. Control Alt Delete will have to decide what to do with all the information. What happens to users’ data, where will the data be archived, and who controls the archive? Will users have to pay for the app? Tracking systems can be very effective in monitoring everyday human actions, but they also pose a major threat to users’ privacy when sensitive data ends up in the wrong hands (Agre 1994; Gehl 2011).

Controle Alt Delete will have to come to terms with the fact that the app will merely be a small victory in their fight against racial profiling and policy brutality. In order to really fight for justice, law enforcement will have to become more inclusive: diversity policies and intercultural education will have to be implemented. Only then will an app that monitors systematic wrongful arrests and police brutality have effect.

Agre, Philip E. “Surveillance and Capture: Two Models of Privacy.” The Information Society
10.2 (1994): 740-749.
Gehl, Robert. “The Archive and the Processor: The Internal Logic of Web 2.0.” New Media
& Society 13.8 (2011): 1-17.

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