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An App To Fix Police Brutality?

A more hands-off approach to policing

An editor reviews Facebook Live footage in the aftermath of Philando Castile's police shooting (Getty Images)

In the wake of an overwhelming number of police shootings over the last year (Falcon Heights in particular), one tech VC has a proposal for an app that could help ease the problem. But is this just a simplistic fix for a complex social issue?

Shirvin Pishevar, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who helped fund Uber, has a suggestion for a Facetime-like app that would maintain distance between police and the citizens they pull over in traffic. Info like license and registration could be exchanged over the app, so officers wouldn’t need to leave their vehicle during these stops. The app would start audio and video recording from the moment each interaction begins.

Pishevar floated the idea on Twitter on the same day Philando Castile was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. Pishevar’s proposal, which he calls a “stop-gap solution,” would necessitate less direct interactions between police and suspects, which would ideally keep situations from escalating.

But some see Pishevar’s proposal as a symptom of the flawed “apps can fix everything” mentality, pervasive among the Silicon Valley set. Tech titan Anil Dash told USA Today that money to fund the app would be better spent on programs that try to address race-based police brutality at its roots.

“'There's an app for that' is not the answer to institutional racism," said Dash.

Pishevar, who has enlisted former NYC Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik for his proposition, acknowledges there is no quick fix for such a deep-seated societal issue. He says the goal is to make incremental progress now, and to kickstart a broader dialogue.

"The thing is, getting rid of racism is a cultural thing that takes decades. It's not something we can solve immediately. Structural changes have to happen in our culture. But we can use technology to at least make it much harder for racists to execute violence on people," Pishevar said.

The proposal is still in its early moments; kinks need to be worked out. For instance, what happens when a citizen doesn’t have a mobile phone? How do you ensure that someone is showing his or her real license? And does something like this create further barriers between police and the communities they serve?

Misguided or not, it’s certainly not a bad thing to have the powerful tech community focus on one of our most pressing domestic issues. Google has given more than $5 million to racial justice nonprofits, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey marched in a recent Black Lives Matter protest in Ferguson, and Silicon Valley seems to be noticing—to some extent—life outside its bubble.

Dash, who thinks his cohorts have focused too much on less vital issues like internet surveillance, had poignant words for USA Today. "I think that 4-year-old girl would much rather have her e-mail spied on and have her mom's boyfriend still be here today," he said, referring to the young girl who witnessed Philando Castile’s killing. "Let's put as much effort and will behind stopping this pattern as we do behind surveillance."

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