New 'Yelp for cops' app takes epidemiological approach to police misconduct


A Chicago police officer outside City Hall in December 2015 - SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES
  • Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • A Chicago police officer outside City Hall in December 2015

A new app that's billing itself as a "Yelp for cops" won $4,000 in seed funding at South Side Pitch last week and is preparing to launch in Chicago in December. And while some people are worried about a for-profit company acting as a middleman for police misconduct data and privatizing information of crucial importance to the public, many police transparency advocates are welcoming the new platform.

Excuse Me Officer, or XMO, will allow users to write reviews of interactions they've had with police officers—both good and bad. The app will also allow users to rate their police districts on a scale of one to five. Geo-tagged reviews will then be displayed on a map of the city, along with user-generated videos. Since victims of police violence are rarely able to make recordings themselves, and those recording might not even know the victim, the app will automatically match up reports and videos geotagged in the same location. 

The app will also allow users to rate their police districts on a scale of one to five.

"What Worldstar Hip Hop was for fight videos, we're trying to become for police interactions," says XMO's creator, Channing Harris.

The XMO app will also provide users with push notifications and alerts about trends in their communities, if there's been an increase in a certain type of misconduct allegation, for example, or if negative police activity is allegedly on the rise on a particular block.

Harris, who's African-American and grew up on the near west side, says he didn't dive into this as an anti-police project. His mother works for the Elgin Police Department, and he "was raised knowing that cops are great," he says. But his best friend was beaten so badly by an off-duty officer in 2015, Harris says, that her appendix ruptured. That incident, and the rise in video documentation of police brutality, stirred his consciousness and spurred him to act.

Harris began XMO as a Facebook page to aggregate officer complaints. The idea for the app came when he saw many people posting stories of good deeds done by cops as well.

"We wanted to make sure [the app] was a transparent platform that allowed you to rate everything that's happening," Harris explains.

While users can review their interactions with cops and provide information including the officers' badge numbers, officers' names won't be attached to reviews and badge numbers won't be visible to other users—only to the XMO developers.

This would seem to make XMO's approach to reviews strangely unhelpful, akin to saying, "There's a terrible restaurant in Logan Square," without saying which one it is.

But Harris worries that releasing officers' names or badge numbers to the public could lead to unfair targeting or vilification of officers based on unproved allegations. "It's a safety issue for the police officers," he explains. "We still have to care about people's privacy, because these are just accusations."

Instead, he argues, the app will offer something more valuable than a mere record of an interaction with a cop: It will show where negative interactions are concentrated. Just as epidemiologists search for the source of a disease outbreak, Harris argues, XMO will show which police districts are home to a rash of abuse complaints. This is important to engender reform, Harris says, because protesting individual officers isn't an effective way to change police culture. 

"If you really want to rally up, you can rally up against the district," he says. "If the alderman doesn't care if the police have a 1.2 rating in your area, that's why you need to start caring about who your alderman is."

Efforts to create a "Yelp for cops" in other cities have been made before. In 2014, after the shooting of Michael Brown, a family team of teen developers in Georgia created the Five-O app, which offered a similar reviewing system. But with only a few hundred downloads in the app store, the idea doesn't seem to have taken off. Meanwhile, the ACLU launched an app for collecting police conduct videos last month; ACLU branches in 18 states are offering the app so far, but Illinois isn't yet one of them.

But in addition to Harris's social mission, there's also a profit motive at work. Although the app is free, following in Yelp's footsteps, the user content it collects will be proprietary. And XMO will charge for custom data analysis for public- and private-sector clients, charging between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars, depending on the size and needs of the institution, Harris says.

He plans to donate some of the company's profits to charity. Namely, having discovered the mental health benefits of practicing yoga, Harris envisions providing free yoga instruction to people in high-crime neighborhoods.

Still, the entry of a new private company into the arena of police complaint aggregation worries some and contrasts with successful existing approaches made by non-profits. For years, the non-profit Invisible Institute has fought for the release of police misconduct records, and now provides a searchable database of around 56,000 records through its Citizens Police Data Project. Last week, a fresh cache of more than 134,000 complaints dating back to 1967 were released to the public as a result of Institute founder Jamie Kalven's long legal battle against the city and its police union.

But attorney Craig Futterman, one of Chicago's most vocal advocates for police transparency and founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, isn't troubled by the for-profit nature of XMO. Rather, he welcomes a new platform that could provide real-time tracking of abuse allegations, as well as informal feedback on how the police behave.

"Let a thousand flowers bloom," Futterman says. "Innovations like this create the conditions for people locally and around the nation to advocate publicly for government to do what it's supposed to be doing," which is keeping police departments accountable.

To build and maintain databases such as the Invisible Institute's, "it takes an inordinate amount of resources," Futterman explains. "I don't have an issue with folks in the private sector who may be able to come up and spend resources to develop apps and other databases that can be of real value."

Chaclyn Hunt, an attorney with the Invisible Institute, also welcomes the idea of XMO, but says it's important that the data collected be available to the public.

"It's always a problem when private companies are providing public services and you can't FOIA their records," Hunt says. As a private company, XMO wouldn't be subject to state or federal records requests laws the way CPD is, and any data it releases to the public will be at its discretion.

Like Futterman, Hunt sees XMO and similar apps as a way to put public pressure on the police department, and help people feel like their voices are being heard.

"I think it increases the sense that you can participate, you can speak up, people are listening," says Hunt. "I love this idea that [XMO is] not about scandal, it's not about lawsuits—it's about what everyday policing feels like in their neighborhood."

Neither is Hunt concerned about the potential for XMO to decrease people's motivation to lodge official complaints. Rather, she thinks XMO could help embolden people to do so while bringing additional public scrutiny to the department's response to abuse allegations.

Filing an official complaint against a CPD officer currently begins with a phone call, in-person report, or online form. But in order for IPRA, the police oversight agency, to begin an investigation, the person making the complaint must clear an even higher hurdle—a sworn affidavit. (That requirement could change if the Department of Justice investigation into CPD leads to a consent decree over the department.) On average, more than 6,000 official misconduct complaints have been filed annually, according to Invisible Institute data, but thousands of complaints never get investigated because people don't submit affidavits.

Nationwide, fewer than than one in 10 people who believe they've been abused by police make official complaints, according to Futterman. People are afraid of retaliation, and discouraged "based on knowledge and experience with complaint systems like in Chicago, knowing that nothing's ever going to happen," he says.

Nevertheless, Hunt insists, some Chicagoans kept braving the official process for decades before the Internet allowed grievances to be brought to a mass audience.

"People are making complaints and they were making complaints [for years], but there are a lot of mechanisms that make your complaint disappear or not matter," she says.

But the next frontier for XMO, Hunt argues, should be releasing officers' names through the app, despite Harris's liability concerns.

"I think it's important to push the city into a place where nobody's scared anymore of publishing officer names," she says, because badge numbers are recycled and thus aren't as useful for identifying officers.

"Almost 10,000 complaints we released didn't get investigated because IPRA can't identify which officers you're talking about," she says.

XMO is scheduled to launch December 3. For now, Harris and his team are collecting reviews of police interactions through their website, and building up a database with more than 50,000 misconduct complaint records—obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

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