In Two Separate Corners of the World, Tech Changes a Police Crisis


America and the Philippines are enduring police crises. In the former, riots continue to break out and public debate is fierce following a string of deaths–mostly of black men–at the hands of officers. In the latter a brutal drug war, initiated by new president Rodrigo ‘Digong’ Duterte, has claimed over 3,000 lives.

This month tech entered the fray in both nations. But the two solutions sit on very different sides of the debate.

Today the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a human-rights NGO, launched Mobile Justice, an app that creates shortcuts to smartphones’ cameras before uploading video footage directly to a local branch of the organization.

Its pain point has become apparent in recent weeks following the deaths of Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher, in North Carolina and Oklahoma respectively. The shooting of Scott has resulted in widespread protests in the city of Charlotte, while Betty Jo Shelby, a Tulsa police officer, has been charged with the manslaughter of Crutcher.

In both cases video footage has come under intense scrutiny. In Scott’s case in particular, it has been inconclusive. The ACLU has thus developed Mobile Justice to “record police conduct”. It is available on Android and iOS. The app follows a similar mobile campaign, Stop And Frisk Watch, which aimed to curb controversial racial profiling in New York.

Smartphone penetration in the US is 79.3% among all those above the age of 13: pitching a video app to uphold citizens’ rights can, arguably, make a solid difference in America’s ongoing police debate. In the Philippines it is very different. A little under 39% of its 98 million population own smartphones; fewer still in the depressed areas affected by Duterte’s deadly campaign–via which he is hoping to cure the country’s rampant drug problems.

The power, technologically, is in the hands of the authorities. Perhaps that is why, last week, its national police (PNP) launched iSerbis, an app that allows people to access police services online–and, crucially, to notify authorities of suspected drug users and pushers.

iSerbis, which is rudimentary by Mobile Justice’s standards, comes after a June state of the nation speech by Duterte in which he encouraged the use of IT services to reduce bureaucratic red tape. However it is the app’s use in ‘Project Double Barrel’, Duterte’s drug war, that has caused alarm in some quarters.

Suspects are regularly referred to police with little or no evidence. Normally a surprise visit, called tokhang–’knock and plead’–follows. Suspects claimed to have been resisting this, or who have bought drugs in a sting, often wind up dead. As many as 40 bodies accrue per night.

“Where is the due process?” one resident of Quezon City, the Philippines’ most populous city, told Red Herring. “Can anyone use this app and pressure someone they don’t like with the cops?” A police officer in Quezon City would not comment on the app, offering only phrases of political support for Duterte.

The Philippines has become something of a nascent tech ecosystem in recent years, and investment vehicles such as Berlin’s Rocket Internet have put money into local firms. iSerbis is a reminder, perhaps, that not all mobile apps are constructed with the best interests of a country’s people in mind. Mobile Justice may be an example to the contrary.