Get the latest news delivered daily!
Get the latest news delivered daily!
You’re driving along Santa Monica Boulevard late at night after a long shift at work, tired, and accidentally breeze through a red light.
Seconds later, you see blue and red lights in your rearview mirror — a police officer.
Instead of anxiously waiting for the officer to come up to the window, you pull up an app and initiate a video call with the officer, who explains what you face.
He then strolls up, possibly hands over a ticket, and you both part ways.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union released a study on the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that used 2019 data and found that roughly 80% of all interactions between deputies and the public were for traffic violations. A New York Times investigation found that from 2017 to 2021, police officers across America killed more than 400 drivers or passengers who were not armed.
Tyler Hochman and Jackson Lallas, who met while attending Stanford University and graduated several years ago, figured a video call between the officer and the driver could grease the interaction and prevent some violence. They developed an app called SafeStop, which allows users to have these video calls.
This month, a pilot program kicked off after Hochman and Lallas trained a dozen Los Angeles County sheriff’s traffic deputies at the West Hollywood station.
Anyone can download the app, which is free for Apple and Samsung phones. It appears in the app store as TrafficStop, with a blue icon showing a shield and a car. To use the app, users create a login with their email address and input their vehicle’s make, model, and color.
If a user gets pulled over, he or she can initiate a video call in the app, which will use the device’s location services to find the nearest available officer. Lallas explained that an officer on the other end of the app sees the location and vehicle’s description.
From there, a two-way video call shows up on both phones, looking similar to a FaceTime call. Police can also see the email address, vehicle location and description but not the telephone number.
Although CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition, drones, and automated license-plate readers are widespread in law enforcement, the idea of directly interacting with a police officer through an app is new. SafeStop’s founders said they are not aware of a similar application.
Hochman and Lallas would not disclose how much they’ve spent on SafeStop. The pair, and Capt. Bill Moulder, said the Sheriff’s Department isn’t paying for the app.
The use of it is completely anonymous unless a call is initiated, Lallas said.
“Especially since it’s dealing with law enforcement, we want to make sure users’ privacy is absolutely protected,” he said. “For this to be successful, this has to be something people can trust. We’ve designed this to be something you can use anonymously.”
As of Thursday, Oct. 19, the app had been downloaded by 1,000-plus users but apparently not deployed by anyone in the public yet.
“It seemed like an interesting program, and one that we wanted to try out,” said Capt. Moulder, of the West Hollywood station. “We’ll try it out and see how it works.”
Deputies are given a separate phone, which they check out during shifts. They do not have to use the app, even if someone calls them. For example, Moulder explained, the officer might believe the stop would go smoother without using the app: “Sometimes conditions around the stop may compel the officer not to use the app.”
Jake Weiner, a lawyer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research center that focuses on data and technology, said officers could use things seen in the background of the video calls to initiate searches, which could allow them to conduct potentially unnecessary searches.
“”The baseline problem with this app is that it puts the onus on regular people to prevent police harassment and violence,” he said. “Too often, police aren’t actually trying to enforce minor traffic violations, but using the stop as an excuse for a fishing expedition to look for drugs, suspicious persons. An app can’t stop an officer with bias or bad intentions.”
For Lallas, the whole point is to form better relationships between police and the public.
“This app hits at the difficulty of traffic stops, which is the unknown,” he said. “That’s a problem for the community, and for law enforcement. The community doesn’t know how that interaction will go, and they’re often apprehensive. For law enforcement, they don’t know who they pulled over. Any community could be able to pick this up and it would be universally helpful.”
Copyright © 2023 MediaNews Group