Record and report interactions with police using the ACLU app -- here's how

Learn if your state supports the ACLU Mobile Justice app.

Shelby Brown Editor II
Shelby Brown (she/her/hers) is an editor for CNET's services team. She covers tips and tricks for apps, operating systems and devices, as well as mobile gaming and Apple Arcade news. Shelby also oversees Tech Tips coverage. Before joining CNET, she covered app news for Download.com and served as a freelancer for Louisville.com.
  • She received the Renau Writing Scholarship in 2016 from the University of Louisville's communication department.
Shelby Brown
5 min read

A man records Sheriff deputies with his phone as demonstrators protest the murder of George Floyd on June 1 in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

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Smartphone footage has become a tool for citizen journalists to record interactions with police, be it for themselves or filming as a bystander. Phone videos filmed by activists and shared on social media and news sites have made a huge difference in the public perception of police brutality and provide new evidence for cases that might otherwise be left unexamined. Video footage of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died during an arrest as a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes despite his cries that he couldn't breathe, sparked protests in the US and around the world this month. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, when you're lawfully present in a public space, you can take pictures or video of anything in plain sight. Without a warrant, police officers cannot ask to see, delete or confiscate your photos or videos

Protesters have opted to use the livestreaming features on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to better protect footage. If you have an iPhone, you can set up a Siri shortcut to start recording and share your location during a police interaction. Another option is the ACLU Mobile Justice app.

What is the ACLU Mobile Justice app?

The ACLU released its free Mobile Justice app in 2015, providing an easy way to record and upload interactions with the police. It's available on iOS and Android. 

The app has three main features -- Record, Report and Witness. Videos of police encounters and reports are automatically uploaded to your local ACLU affiliate. Depending on the state, the app might have slight variations. For example, the Mobile Justice New Mexico app also applies to Border Patrol encounters.    

The app also has a Know Your Rights section that has information on law enforcement encounters, student's rights, health and reproductive rights and free speech. The Broadcast My Location feature allows you to find other app users who may be in need of a witness, as well as ways to manually fill out incident reports to submit. 

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Which states support the ACLU Mobile Justice app?

For now, only 17 states and Washington, DC are represented in the Mobile Justice app, but the ACLU's website says it's adding more states soon. For example, the ACLU Blue app is available in Texas, which operates similarly to the Mobile Justice app. If your state isn't on the list below, a quick internet search can help you find out where the ACLU is with getting the app to your location.

An ACLU spokesperson told CNET that the organization is working towards making the app available nationwide later this summer.

The following states offer access to the Mobile Justice app: 

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia
  • Washington, DC 

How do the main features work? 

The interface for the Mobile Justice app is fairly intuitive. Again, there are three main features: Record, Witness and Report. 

Record: To Record an encounter, tap Record on the app's main screen and, using your phone's camera, the app will immediately start filming. Just hold your phone in your hand and point the camera at whatever is happening. When you tap the camera icon on the screen, the recording will end and the footage will automatically be sent to the ACLU. If you just want to test your camera, tap the Test button next to Record. That footage won't be uploaded. 

Report: After you stop the recording, the app takes you to the Report screen. There you can fill in information about the incident such as its location, and the age, gender and ethnicity of the person who was stopped by police. You can also include information about the officers involved in the incident. The app asks for details about if they identified themselves, any use of force, weapons involved and if you were able to get a badge number. The Extra section lets you add any additional information not asked in the report. When it's filled out, tap Submit Survey.

You can also access the Report screen and submit information without recording a video -- just tap the Report button. Recordings and reports sent to the ACLU are anonymous, but if you go into Settings, there's an option to input your name, phone number and email address if the ACLU has additional questions. It's not mandatory, though.

Witness: The Witness button is designed to help connect app users in the same area who might need help. Tapping Witness can show you where a police stop is taking place. Before you can use it, go into the app settings and turn on Broadcast My Location. This can also be used to let other app users know where you are if there's an incident. 

If Witness is on, the little eye icon will be green. If someone is using the app in your area, you'll get a notification and can view the other's location in your Maps app.

Which permissions does the app ask for?

The Mobile Justice app asks for access to identity and contacts to find accounts on the device, your location, photos and media, storage, camera and microphone. You can read more about the permissions in the Google Play Store or the App Store before downloading. 

Since the ACLU is working towards a nationwide release of the app, its legal and privacy documents will be updated, according to an ACLU spokesperson. All user data is transmitted via HTTPS/TLS and the organization said it does not retain IP addresses. You can read the legal and privacy documents for the Mobile Justice California app if you're interested in a deeper dive. The policies will vary from state to state, however. 

"Unless a user has enabled location for the app or provided identifying information such as their contact information, we are not able to identify a user or identify the location of a recorded incident," an ACLU spokesperson said.

For more, check out everything you need to know about your rights when attending a protest, and how to support the Black Lives Matter movement after the protests end.

Black Lives Matter. Visit blacklivesmatters.carrd.co to learn how to donate, sign petitions and protest safely.

Watch this: How to protect your phone (and your privacy) at a protest