It was announced in early November 2015 that a new app would be available to those living in the UK by the name of YStop, developed by the charities Release, and Stop Watch. The app’s basic function is to enable the everyday smart-phone user to record any instance of police misconduct that they may happen to witness and immediately upload it to a central database where lawyers will assess the footage.
The app was inspired by an American counterpart currently used in California, and soon Baltimore, developed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and when UK civil rights campaigners met with members of the Black Lives Matter movement, which campaigns against race-related police brutality.
Widely publicised examples of police brutality rarely fail to initiate an outraged response from the public, and rightly so. The police form an institution with enormous power over the liberty of the citizens they are employed to protect. When that power is abused there is a breach of trust that reminds people of the incredible power of the State.
America has borne witness to the vicious beating of Rodney King in 1991, and more recently the arrest of Freddie Gray in April, who subsequently died of a broken neck sustained in the process of him being dragged into a police van. Yet more famous still is the controversial shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, which has only served to increase the level of distrust between the police and the public.
Such examples are not confined to the United States; cases in the UK include Sheku Bayoh who died after being restrained by police officers in May 2015.
The YStop app allows the user to film interactions with the police, which is automatically sent to Release UK upon stopping the recording. The app then requests the user to complete a short survey, an informal witness statement if you will, on what they have witnessed. This provides context for the lawyers assessing the recordings, and the automatic upload prevents the police from deleting footage before it can be reported.
This is all well and good; in fact some police forces have recently invested in body cameras to be worn by their officers of their own accord. This is indeed a new age of accountability, benefited enormously by technological advancements.
However, is it necessary to encourage and in the case of some forces self-impose such widespread surveillance of police officers behaviour? Can officers no longer be trusted to conduct their duties in a manner befitting their office, and in accordance with the law they are tasked to enforce? Could they ever be trusted?
I would argue that the consequences for a police officer wrongly accused, and conversely the rogue officer’s severe abuse of power with potentially fatal consequences, justify the use of recording equipment in the form of police body cameras, and public reporting via apps such as YStop.
A concern may be that officers become less able to effectively combat crime, more cautious, for fear of accusations of misconduct. The Director of the FBI James Comey has suggested that crime is on the rise as a result of the police becoming more timid, whilst the Executive Director of the Fraternal Order of Police has raised questions over the safety of officers if they hesitate, rather than act instinctively based on their training.
These are serious issues; an increase in crime coupled with a decrease in officer safety should not be the price for greater police accountability. However, I would suggest that not to be the case.
I very much doubt that the public will be using the app to record and report minor procedural infringements of PACE; it is far more likely to be used in a situation where the police are acting in a manner which may be considered disproportionate to the uniformed onlooker, or where they feel that someone is being treated unfairly. It is then the responsibility of Release UK to ensure that lawyers, to establish whether there is evidence of misconduct, properly assess the footage.
The police worn body cameras may indeed be used to identify errors in procedure, but this will assist in greater officer awareness and a better police force through a mechanism by which officer appraisals could be conducted on an unprecedented scale.
The argument that accountability creates a timid and ineffective police force holds little weight. One must never forget that when it comes to policing the end does not justify the means. The police are enforcers of the criminal law, they are granted certain powers to achieve this, and in return the public are given safeguards to protect them from an abuse of this power.
If the police operate within the limits that have been set for them, then they should not fear greater accountability. If the limits set for them prevent them from doing their job in an effective and reasonable way, then there must be a public debate on whether their powers should be adjusted to reflect this. It is not for individual officers to take this decision upon themselves.
The ‘Your Rights’ section of the YStop app is a particularly useful tool for the public; informative and sensible in its guidance, from maintaining eye contact, staying calm, and having confidence, to specific rights predominantly regarding the stop and search procedure. The section also provides advice on how to film a stop and search, and makes the user aware not to obstruct the officers by filming, as this is an offence.
The app is therefore not simply there to trap the police, but informs the public of their rights so that they are better judges of when the police have overstepped their boundaries.
In answer to the old academic question ‘who polices the police?’ we are entering an age where the answer may become, in very real terms, you and I.