The Phone App Aimed At Reducing Police Harassment

The Black Lives Matter-inspired campaign to turn attention on police.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about peoples rights to film in public, and police on the beat like it that way," said lawyer George Newhouse.

The leading human rights advocate is hoping a new phone app he has developed will 'watch the watchers', helping marginalised and targeted communities turn scrutiny on police harassment and abuse. His program, called Copwatch, has been running for some time in response to claims of over-policing and undue attention on Indigenous communities, and teaches people about their rights when it comes to interacting with police.

"Police have body cameras but they have the option to turn off their body cams," he told ten daily.

"They're not recording all their encounters, only the ones that suit them."

Newhouse spoke to ten daily following Friday's launch of the Copwatch app in Dubbo, NSW, chosen for a recent well-publicised police crackdown on youth crime. Police Superintendent Peter McKenna said his officers were "doing the highest number of searches on record" as part of the crime blitz, while a local Wiradjuri elder said young Aboriginal people are being “harassed on a daily basis."

"They’re not pulling up other groups of young people," the elder said.

However, McKenna claimed last week he wanted to "dispel any myths that there is any type of targeting or hardline police approach".

READ MORE: The Hardline Police Experiment Sweeping Dubbo

The Copwatch app, which Newhouse said was developed by Australian tech giant Atlassian, was chosen for launch in Dubbo specifically because of the recent crackdown. The app includes a function to record interactions with police and upload the material directly to a cloud, in case a phone gets lost or damaged, as well as information about legal rights and responsibilities. It also allows users to broadcast their location via GPS to trusted contacts.

"Copwatch was successful when we launched in Broken Hill because it ended up building a better relationship between the Indigenous community and local police," Newhouse said.

"I’m hoping Superintendent McKenna will take the lead from Broken Hill and start looking at positive ways of policing in Dubbo by reaching out and empowering local community members by working working constructively with young people, instead of enforcing a hardline policy against them."

As of June 30, 2017, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports Aboriginal and Torrest Strait Islander people accounted for 27 per cent of the total prisoner numbers, but just two percent of the total population. There were 11,307 prisoners who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, a seven percent increase from the year before. Critics claim this is due, at least in part, to what they claim is greater scrutiny from police on Indigenous Australians.

Newhouse said Copwatch was inspired by Black Lives Matters protesters and activists in the United States, who encourage people to learn their rights in relation to police and teach how to record interactions with police that may turn unsavoury. He said the initiative was formed in the aftermath of riots and anger at police following the death of Kalgoorlie boy Elijah Doughty, who was hit by a car in 2016.

"The frustration spilled into a riot so we developed Copwatch as a peaceful method of empowering Aboriginal kids and communities, and as a way of exposing the police misconduct they were being subjected to," Newhouse said.

"It puts the info about their rights, and the tech, in their hands."

Des Jones, the chair of the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly in Dubbo, told ten daily he welcomed the launch of Copwatch in his town.

"It’s a response to a lot of incidents over a long period of time. A lot of them aren't recorded, aren't unlawful," he claimed.

A poster for the Copwatch launch in Dubbo

"We hear a lot of stories from communities and leadership groups about police behaviour. Some of those policies are abused by police officers."

NSW Police did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

"Police can make anybody a suspect if they're wearing a hoodie, associating with someone of criminal background, ethnic or racial background, physical appearance," Jones said.

A young man uses the Copwatch app on his phone

"They have the right to search you, question you, harass in a from that’s technically legal. They're backed up by these policies thinking they can harass normal people in the street going about their business."

A Hugh Riminton report on The Project in July detailed how a lack of eye contact, walking around late at night, or an unconvincing explanation for where they are going, can be enough reason for police to conduct a body or vehicle search.

"The worst part is, if you dom't trust your police, and there are incidents of domestic violence, drugs, terrorism, whatever, people aren't going to come forward," Jones said.

"You need the community information for good policing, and if you have the mistrust, you won't get that info."

The National Justice Project has conducted training and information sessions with Dubbo locals, and plans to roll out Copwatch around the country to other communities. Newhouse said the initiative has attracted support from western Sydney, and African community groups in Melbourne.

"We want safe communities, we want the best for our children, and our communities to be functioning and have the same opportunities as everyone else in NSW," Jones said.