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November 8-10, 2016
I sit in my room at the Pact camp. This camp is a significant conference about people (mostly white as it turns out) who adopt people of color. One of the issues that is discussed quite a bit is the issue of race, and in particular, how to handle the problem of black people (mostly men and boys) being harassed or killed by the police. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that you must prepare your black young man, as a boy, to behave in a way that will not attract the attention of the police, and then certainly, if said attention is attracted, to not upset them in any way so that you can be safe. However, this is not really working, as evidenced by the large number of people that continue to be killed by the police.
When this issue of unjustified violence by the police first came to my attention a few years ago, my thought was the problem would be solved once the police had body cameras. I felt that these problems could not exist in an environment where everything was completely public and the police would have to account for their actions in a public way. I did not think much further about it, except for the hopeless feelings I had every I heard about an unjustified death.
I am a computer person, I have always been one. Last week I went to the Hadoop Summit 2016 where we heard several presentations about the promise of big data to dramatically improve the world in areas ranging from game changing medical breakthroughs (cure cancer anyone?), to improving access to education in rural India, to reducing the cost of car insurance. We are only at the beginning of this huge technological shift, brought about the dramatic improvements in accessibility and usability of software, data, and hardware.
I want to see this technology applied to this problem of police oppression, so that we can give oppressed people the tools and power to have safety (the type of safety that I take for granted as a white person) at all times in all places. There are a lot of oppressed people, and there are a lot of people who sympathize with the oppressed people (like me). If we can bring technology to bear on this problem, we can shift the conversation to having the oppressors be the fearful ones (of their actions being exposed), rather than the oppressed. This can also level the playing field, giving people stopped in their cars a way to get instant support.
We have to mobilize and focus the enormous resources of the reasonable people (of all colors) in this country against the very small number of people who think (through action or inaction) that this can be tolerated.
We are taking a number of steps in this direction. There are ACLU apps that allow you to make a video and have it be uploaded so that even if the phone is confiscated the video survives. They also allow you to be aware of bad things happening around you so you can get involved and be a witness. With the use of social networks and improved applications, we can go much further with this.
As I have been writing this, the Philando Castile killing happened. The way this was recorded serves as another example of getting closer to the real time action that’s required: the immediate video of the aftermath was quickly shared on social media. However, what if everything was video and audio recorded from the beginning of the stop? What if Mr. Castile had the opportunity to be speaking with a trained person who could help him as the incident was happening? Maybe this could have been prevented. Even if not prevented, the evidence captured would go a long way in helping justice to be served.
I can imagine a situation where you have an app on your phone, and perhaps a hidden camera or two in the car. When you are stopped for traffic, you just say a phrase into your phone and you are immediately connected with someone who can support you, and everything is recorded both by video and audio. Video recording of police is currently legal in all states, and audio recording of this kind is legal in 47 states. You can let the police know this is all being recorded and that you are in communication with someone in real time. Your location is noted publicly.
I think this sort of setup could be provided at very little (or perhaps no) cost to those who wanted it, and working with the ACLU or similar organization, it’s possible to put together people that can be available around the clock to be the support person. The technology to do this relatively cheaply is there now. It just takes the coordination, will, and some money to make this happen.
If the police knew that everyone who wanted it would not only get a person to help them, but also everything would be automatically recorded, then maybe the police departments would do what was required to fix this. Even though officers might not be adequately prosecuted for this bad behavior, the cost to the policy agency of the unambiguous publicity will be very high and something they would seek to avoid.
Given my responsibilities and qualifications, I’m not in a position to personally lead this effort, or even contribute much in the way of time or money. I’m sure there are better qualified people who can lead and contribute to this. I will do what I can to help put people together and get the word out. Feel free to comment with your ideas of where we can go from here.