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S.F. Tech Investor Wants to Put an App Between Cops and Motorists. What Could Go Wrong?

Police violence, solutionized.

Philando Castile's mother and uncle speaking to CNN about the killing of their son.


There have been so many killings by police caught on camera that the videos are, regrettably, becoming a genre unto themselves, with recognizable sets of conventions. While everyone grapples with how to address what has grown into an outright epidemic—there has been only one day in 2016 when police haven’t killed someone—tech investor Shervin Pishevar has a shortcut in mind: Let’s build an app! The idea: Make it possible for cops to communicate from a distance with the motorists they pull over. The logic is, it’s kind of hard to feel “threatened” by someone and pop off your gun if you’re still safely in your car, right? Pishevar, an investor in tech companies including Uber and Airbnb, has been focus-grouping the idea on Twitter all day, and the Twitterati are simultaneously in love with the idea and repulsed by it. Tech entrepreneur Anil Dash perhaps put it best, tweeting: “Tech can’t fix antiblackness.” 

In Pishevar’s thinking, an app is not a substitute for police reform, but a useful stopgap. “Solving racism will take decades of culture and structural change,” he tweeted.

It’s worth noting that Pishevar’s idea has a kernel of smarts: One of the de-escalation tactics promoted (and sometimes even acted on) by the SFPD in response to President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing is for officers to create “time and distance” between themselves and suspects. In other words, Pishevar seems to be saying, if you can’t take the racist reaction out of the cop, consider keeping him in his car for as long as possible. If the officer who stopped Philando Castile last night could have gotten Castile’s license and registration through a Facetime-like app on his phone, maybe Castile would still be alive. "The mobile app would put distance between the police officer and the citizen and a lot of stuff could happen automatically,” Pishevar told USA Today, explaining that the entire interaction would be recorded.

Of course, there are just as many things wrong with this idea. There is the obvious limitation (which Pishevar acknowledges) that not everyone has a smartphone. So maybe the app could be built into new cars, he explained to USA Today. And older cars could be retrofitted! Hmm. Is this a Silicon Valley disruption or a cumbersome recall program? “There’s a costly, tedious retrofit for your Ford Focus that you might have to pay for” is not nearly as sexy as “There’s an app for that.” 

And if you’re Oscar Grant or Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or Alton Sterling or Amilcar Perez-Lopez or Alex Nieto or Mario Woods or Luis Gongora—none of whom met their untimely ends from behind the wheel—you’re still out of luck. 

But let’s play along and assume that this app could happen, without the battle that body-worn cameras have faced.

Here’s more about how it would work, per USAT:

The mobile app as Pishevar envisions it would automatically begin recording audio and video as soon as a traffic stop occurs. It would also include a panic button which would contact specially trained officers who could attempt to “de-escalate what's going on by directly communicating with the police officer,” Pishevar says.

So here we are, back at square one: If the in-app contact fails, either party just hits a panic button to summon officers with de-escalation training. Simple!

Here’s how the brainstorming sesh went down, probably:

“Police need to do better with de-escalation.”

“Cool, let’s make an app for that!”

“Awesome, what will it do?”

“It’s basically Facetime until things go south, at which point it summons officers with de-escalation training.”

“Cool. Think you can get funding?”


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