A new smartphone app has been developed to guide and assist members of the public through often difficult and contentious police interactions.
LegalSwipe is a free app, available on both the iTunes and Android markets. It provides step-by-step interactions through a decision tree, prompting the user to ask specific questions such as whether they are under arrest. It then tells the user what they should or should not be doing or saying with these police interactions.
The app is the brainchild of Christien Levien, a law student who completed his articles in criminal law and is currently studying for the bar exam. The inability of many of the individuals he has encountered who simply do not know how to properly interact with law enforcement is what prompted the initiative. Levien states,
After doing legal rights workshops in various communities, what I found was those who have the least understanding of what their rights are, are most likely to have them violated.
The app also provides a function to record video and audio of the entire exchange, a feature which could be essential in any subsequent questions or litigation over an unlawful arrest or search. In case the phone is seized by the police, the app sends this media file to a cloud-based Dropbox account, where it can be retrieved at a later date. An emergency notification system, contacting a pre-designated individual, can also get assistance to a person under arrest in a timely fashion.
LegalSwipe is not just a useful tool for the public, but it should assist counsel and even law enforcement. In addition to providing objective evidence about what has transpired in these interactions, it explicitly directs the user to obtain legal advice in certain situations such as an arrest.
Law enforcement could benefit because it potentially defuses a contentious interaction. By providing a user a script of tight questioning, and a legal framework for them to follow, they avoid the often heated, confusing, distrustful exchanges that occur with individuals who are being detained or arrested.
Although the app has already been designed to operate with both Canadian and American law, there is particular interest in it from the community where it emerged. The Toronto Police have been under scrutiny for a tactic they refer to as “community engagement,” which they describe as “an incredibly effective tool.” The public simply refer to the practice as “carding,” based on a contact card that is filled out due to the stop.
The police stop and question members of the public and enter this information into a database, including demographic information and social contacts. The networks of contacts are used by the police to identify potential criminal associates and criminal behaviour. The problem is that most of these stops are not necessarily justified on reasonable suspicion, and certain members of the public are stopped more than others.
An investigation by the Toronto Star of 1.2 million people entered into this database between 2008-2013 revealed that the individuals stopped were more likely to be African-Canadian. The majority of these did not involve an arrest or any charges.
Desmond Cole, who spoke at the LegalSwipe launch last night, detailed in Toronto Life some of the continuing challenges:
In late March, the TPS revamped their carding policy… But when you look at the fine print, it’s clear that little has changed. Under their new procedures, police do not have to inform civilians that a carding interaction is voluntary, that they can walk away at any time. Cops won’t be required to tell civilians why they are being stopped, and their internal justifications for a stop are so broad they might as well not exist. Worst of all, the database where police have been storing this information will still be used.
The widespread opposition to carding has led to the mayor promising the practice will end.
Toronto has a troubled relationship with law enforcement generally in the recent past. The G20 summit in 2010 led to many police abuses that continue to be explored and investigated in court. The Occupy Toronto movement, in contrast, had far less contentious exchanges with the police, largely due to a strong contingent of legal observers of the eviction process.
Instead of depending on lawyers to instantaneously appear on the spot and guide the public when encountered by the police, or monitoring public protest situations that may become contentious, this technology has the potential to strengthen our civil liberties and increase our public confidence in law enforcement.
Police accountability is not a negative thing. It demonstrates that nobody is above the law – including those who are tasked with enforcing it.