As he watched news reports of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in August, LSU senior software engineering student Elbis Bolton began forming an idea.
What if there were a central hub where everyday people could upload photos or videos of questionable police behavior? And what if he could put those witnesses’ photos and videos immediately into the hands of journalists?
Bolton teamed up with senior journalism student Wilborn Nobles , and the two created such a resource, an app known as the Police Officer Watchdog Event Reporter — POWER, for short. It is available on phones with Android operating systems, and the creators are planning to introduce a version compatible with iPhones.
Professors at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication hope that in the future, news about violent encounters with law enforcement will be disseminated through the students’ app.
“It’s a tremendously volatile issue and has been in our country for a long time,” said visiting journalism professor Steve Buttry.
Academics at the school referenced incidents dating from the videotaped beating of Rodney King, whose case triggered the 1992 Los Angeles riots, to the shooting death of Walter Scott last month, also caught on video, for which a South Carolina police officer has been charged with murder.
Professors hope that with the growing ubiquity of cellphones with cameras, more incidents will be caught on video. POWER’s developers aim to spread those eyewitness accounts.
Reporters often have to rely on police reports or interviews with civilian witnesses, both of which can be “self-serving,” said professional-in-residence Jay Shelledy, who advised the students on the project.
“We are trained to ask skeptical questions of both sides because we’re after the facts,” he said. “We cannot believe either, totally.”
Video of an incident can offer a more objective portrayal of what happened, Shelledy explained. In a way, POWER could become the mirror image of the body cameras rising in popularity among the country’s police departments.
Both developers and professionals noted that the app could clear an officer wrongly accused of brutality or capture their bravery in an emergency.
Nobles and Bolton presented their work last month to judges at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and took home prizes for most successful project and riskiest project at the Social Media News Challenge.
“We were looking for something … that hadn’t been done before,” said Dean Jerry Ceppos, who judged the event with adjunct computer science professor Chris Branton and Advocate assistant features editor Beth Colvin.
“Wow, there’s really a need for this app. It’s on-target,” Ceppos said.
The app is “risky” because the project is so ambitious in scope and will require participation from both the public and media outlets, said Buttry, who coordinates the contest.
The POWER app allows users to submit their photos and videos with a summary of what happened, where and when the incident occurred, and which law enforcement agency was involved. Nobles and Bolton haven’t received any submissions of police activity yet, but they plan to review submissions to filter out spam before distributing the submissions to newsrooms. They’re working with others at LSU to determine how to verify questionable submissions, but they may also leave the decision to individual newsrooms.
They are still considering how best to work with news agencies and have thought about charging papers and TV stations a one-time fee or subscription to keep the computer servers running, but they haven’t decided on a price.
Buttry wondered if the project could eventually continue as a nonprofit organization funded by media outlets. Perhaps an existing nonprofit journalism organization such as the Investigative Reporters and Editors or The Poynter Institute may be interested in acquiring the POWER app, he added.
Bolton and Nobles also will have to convince people to download an app they may never use and remember to upload their content if and when they do encounter a violent run-in with law enforcement.
“The tough part is the logistics,” Shelledy said. “How is this stuff going to get from the neighborhood to the … newsroom?”
That depends on the next hurdle: spreading the word about the app.
“We wanted to do something that would bridge the community,” Nobles said.
“Not everyone is always in the loop,” Bolton added. “If you see something, say something.”
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.
Editor’s note: The story was changed on May 11 to correct information about how the two men formed the app.