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Why This Teen-Created Police Accountability App Rules

by Callie Enlow

August 20, 2014

On Monday, police accountability got a whole lot easier for smartphone-wielding citizens. Though much of the publicity surrounding the Five-O app has focused on its precocious teenaged creators, the real story is just how useful their creation is.

A video walk-through of the Five-O app

Five-O—currently available on Android with an Apple version slated for release next week—offers several different components related to interactions (both positive and negative) with police, from a Yelp-style function that lets users “grade” individual cops on a 4-point scale to a list of nearby police stations to a legal rights reference. The app also stores users’ incident reports for quick retrieval later, for instance, when following up on a stolen property report. There’s even a message board to facilitate planning meetings and other actions in response to local law enforcement issues.

“In the beginning, we were just trying to solve a problem,” said 16-year-old Ima Christian, during an afterschool phone interview alongside her siblings and co-developers Asha, 15, and Caleb, 14. 

The Christian siblings

According to Ima, it was Caleb who first thought of Five-O after hearing about “scary and negative issues” in the media related to police brutality. Though Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson spurred them to accelerate development plans, the Georgia-based Christians had already been tinkering with Five-O for about six months. 

There are a few law enforcement accountability apps out there already, notably the ACLU-produced Stop and Frisk Watch and Police Tape, which make recording police encounters easy and discreet for residents of New York City and New Jersey, respectively. Stop and Frisk Watch has an incident survey that functions very much like Five-O’s cop-ranking feature (though it automatically submits the user’s report to the NYCLU) and both include a “Know Your Rights” section. However, these apps are location specific and not of much use outside the intended geographic bounds. Other apps like Fastcase and I’m Getting Arrested help users quickly access legal research and immediately notify contacts in the event of an arrest, but don’t include police accountability functions.

While Five-O doesn’t offer a recording feature, it is otherwise the most convenient and comprehensive app designed expressly for police interactions. And that doesn’t mean the implications are all negative for law enforcement. The Christians envision users giving high grades for especially professional and courteous police. Indeed, used widely and properly, Five-O could aid police forces in both pinpointing problematic interactions and metering positive progress, while also encouraging citizens to get more familiar with local police stations and be proactive in keeping up with their own incident reports.

The Five-O dashboard

As well as providing feedback to local law enforcement agencies, Five-O could also be an easy resource for police management looking to better their community relations. For instance, a unit could log on to find highly ranked departments and then contact them for advice.

So far, the Android app has between 100 and 500 downloads and is averaging a four-and-a-half star review (out of five). While acknowledging the need for minor tweaks, most reviewers seem delighted with a product they call “very innovative,” “a home run,” and “just what the community needs.”

The Christian siblings have been learning about computer science and coding for several years, encouraged by their parents, particularly their mother, a former Earthlink employee. “She really tried to instill in us to get into that area and to dabble in that field,” said Ima. Aided by Javascript tutorials and MIT’s App Inventor, among other online resources, the siblings founded Pinetart Inc. earlier this year, and have two other apps in development.

“We hope our app will be able to give every citizen a voice,” Ima said of Five-O. “Also…if there are any kids out there who are curious about coding, we feel like they can be inspired.”

 

Images courtesy of Pinetart, Inc.

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