Mobile Democracy

Cell phones vs. jail cells

In July the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People unveiled a new website encouraging people to use their cell phones to upload photos, videos, and text accounts of police abuse. Dubbed the Rapid Report System, the site will host the material for safekeeping, protecting evidence even if police are able to confiscate or destroy cell phones at the scene.

In recent years, cell phone cameras have captured dozens of incidents of police misbehavior, most notably a point-blank shooting in January of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by an Oakland Bay Area Rapid Transit officer at a subway station. YouTube, LiveLeak, and other video sharing sites teem with photos and videos of physical and verbal abuse by police officers. In May a cell phone video caught an Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer choking an EMT. The officer had pulled over an ambulance that was en route to the hospital with a patient because the driver failed to yield to his squad car.

Overseas, serious abuses have been captured in photos, video, and Twitter posts sent from phones. The most notable case is the video of the bloodied protester Neda Soltan dying in the street after she was shot by Iranian security forces. The clip became a rallying point for the country’s protest movement.

Commercial websites such as have begun to offer streaming and storage services as well. For now the use of the technology is limited primarily by the number of phones able to record video and the number of communications providers willing to allocate enough bandwidth to stream video—both problems likely to resolve themselves as cell phone technology continues its rapid advance.

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