Justice: There’s an App for That

An explosion of technology – from body cameras on law enforcement officers to crowd-sourced analyses of neighborhood crime – has permeated every level of the criminal justice system, bringing with it the potential to not only increase public safety but help address injustice and abuse, according to a new report from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The so-called civic tech also raises questions.

“The reach is already past police cameras,” says Jason Tashea, author of the report. “The nexus of technology and criminal justice is at every contact point,” from smartphone apps that allow a citizen to rate interaction with a police officer to Yelp for rating prisons.

An eruption of headline stories has been fueled by bystanders recording police encounters with their smartphones. The video of New York City police officers using a fatal chokehold on Eric Garner, an unarmed African American, in August 2014 provided investigators with evidence of police misconduct.

Now, there’s an app for that: The ACLU’s Mobile Justice smartphone app allows bystanders to record and instantaneously upload the video to the civil liberties organization. It’s now available in 17 states and the District of Columbia. ACLU’s Stop & Frisk Watch app was designed specifically to collect information on New York City’s controversial practice of stopping and questioning pedestrians and frisking them for weapons or contraband. The app will eventually be made available in more states, according to ACLU.

Yet technology is advancing so quickly it’s a struggle to separate the good ideas from the not-so-good ones, according to the John Jay College report. Also, application of tech to improve access and communication, like smartphone apps to pay court fines or text notifications about civic emergencies, has been spotty across the country. And some law enforcement agencies are still struggling to accept the unprecedented access technologies can provide to the public.

“The bar for success can’t be that a new project was launched; that’s insufficient,” says Tashea. “We have to know if the project is in fact doing what it claims to be doing, which we hope is creating a fairer and more just system.”

Police departments nationwide have for years used data and statistics to determine crime trends. In Washington, D.C., for example, the city’s Metropolitan Police Department has an Office of Research and Analytical Services, which uses crime data, arrest data, surveys and other data sets to “support innovative policing operations and public safety practices.”

In Chicago, however, there are vivid examples of systemic and cultural challenges to the public’s right to know, even when the information is available.

Experts say the city is ahead of the curve in releasing lots of crime statistics and data to keep the public informed, and private websites like heyjackass.com have taken full advantage, documenting crime patterns across the city. At the same time, it took journalists and lawyers a year to get the police department to release a dashcam video of the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, despite a long-standing public records law. The video appeared to contradict police accounts that McDonald menaced officers with a knife before veteran officer Jason Van Dyke opened fire, shooting McDonald 16 times, including after he lay motionless on the pavement. The released video spurred days of angry protests, allegations of a cover-up and led to calls for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s resignation.

Citizens Police Data Project, the largest public database of police misconduct allegations in the country, established in November, helped journalists acquire information about Van Dyke, who was charged with six counts of first-degree murder in McDonald’s death.

Technology, chiefly data analysis, has also provided fuel for activists challenging the mass incarceration of African-Americans, according to the John Jay College report. Because the nationwide system is so fragmented – local jails, state and federal prisons all keep separate statistical information – advocates for prison and sentencing reform, like the Prison Policy Initiative, are using tech tools to collect and aggregate the statistics to get a clearer picture of who’s behind bars and why.

Smart Chicago, a tech-based organization in the Windy City, tracks information from Chicago law enforcement – “the entire flow, from the commission of a crime to the person going to jail,” says Dan X. O’Neil, its executive director. “The impetus was that the city of Chicago publishes an enormous amount of crime data” that can be used to examine trends, The organization is also teaching computer coding and website development to kids in “neighborhoods most affected by violence and crime,” he adds. “That, we think, is one solution to mass incarceration and hopelessness and crime.”

Technology can also help police officers communicate with communities, says Tashea. Swift 911, for example, is an app that allows local law enforcement officials to send crime alerts and emergency notifications via text messages or posts on social media.

Other technologies have the potential to help police solve crimes. ShotSpotter, for example, uses a microphone network to identify the audio signature of a gunshot, triangulates its location and notifies police, “even if no one is calling the police,” says Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But analysis of data trends to identify crime hot spots can backfire, Zuckerman warns: Flooding the neighborhood with responders can lead to “over-policing.” That, he says, usually results in a crackdown on minor crimes in pursuit of major ones, which can lead residents to see officers as an occupying force instead of a partner in public safety.

So-called predictive policing tactics can lead to harassment of citizens who haven’t committed a crime and human-operated technologies such as body cameras, which can be used to collect evidence in misconduct allegation cases, can often be turned off.

“You can look at technology and criminal justice from an engineering point of view” as well-designed solutions to specific problems, Zuckerman says. Problems emerge, however, “once you start looking at them from a social justice point of view.”

Uncle Sam wants you for his latest offensive – especially if you know how to write code, develop websites or revamp digital systems to make them better. In a push echoing the iconic military recruitment poster of World War II, members of the young agency, the U.S. Digital Service, have been making the rounds in Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the U.S. tech industry, looking for tech-savvy recruits to help the federal government’s digital effort.

The agency was established in 2014, following the challenges of Healthcare.gov in 2013, according to its website. TechCrunch.com describes it as “the strike force of developers and tech wizards from the private sector that were assembled to clean up the mess.” The USDS service is actively seeking tech experts for short- or long-term “tour[s] of duty,” and TechCrunch reports the application process is “surprisingly painless and nimble, something that the federal government is not known for.”

San Francisco wants to use high-resolution cameras to unjam downtown rush-hour traffic by monitoring and making real-time adjustments to traffic signals, but privacy advocates say the city’s plan to use Samsung cameras equipped with facial-recognition technology should get a red light. Officials insist the cameras – which will scan streets from traffic-light poles – are intended to monitor only traffic, not people, but the cameras the agency wants “can detect multiple faces at a time, notice changes in scenery and alert viewers when people cross a designated line,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Civil liberties activists worry the plan will facilitate government surveillance, but city authorities say the transit agency doesn’t have the additional facial-recognition software the technology requires, there are no plans to purchase it and law enforcement authorities won’t have access to the live traffic feed once the cameras are installed.


Joseph P. Williams is a news editor with U.S. News & World Report. E-mail him at JWilliams@usnews.com.