We Need Mobile Justice -- Not BART Watch

Last week, an investigation conducted by reporter Darwin BondGraham at the East Bay Express exposed how passengers are using the new BART security app, BART Watch, to racially profile fellow riders.

The app provides passengers with the opportunity to submit complaints about allegedly criminal behavior to BART police using their phones. But data shows that riders are reporting complaints against Black passengers at disproportionate rates.

In his investigation, BondGraham analyzed one month's worth of alerts--763 messages sent to BART police. Out of the nearly 200 alerts that indicated someone's race, 68% were complaints about Black passengers, despite the fact that only 10% of daily BART users are Black.

Most of the complaints reported through the app are not about criminal acts, like so-called suspicious behavior. But the fact that passengers are using the app to racially profile other passengers makes clear that the app is actually harmful, not just useless.

BART officials claim the funds used to purchase the app were specifically designated for security purposes, but this begs the question, who do BART passengers need protection from?

History has shown that BART passengers face greater danger from BART police than from their fellow riders. In 2009, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle killed an unarmed Oscar Grant by shooting him in the back on the platform at the Fruitvale BART station. And in March 2014, BART police brutalized and arrested a young woman, Nubia Bowe, for dancing on a train.

Like the many passengers whose behavior is being reported through BART Watch, Grant and Bowe were not guilty of criminal behavior. But the BART Watch app encourages passengers to see their fellow riders as a potential danger, an attitude that does not increase anyone's safety.

Instead of putting resources towards apps that promote an atmosphere of spying, we should encourage community members to use apps like Mobile Justice CA. The app, which was launched by the ACLU of California and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in April, is a kind of "people's body camera" that allows people to film their encounters with law enforcement and automatically submit the videos for review.

By turning on the app's Witness function, users receive alerts about potential law enforcement abuses happening nearby and can go and provide support for the victim by recording the incident for them.

Technology can be a powerful tool to battle injustice, but we need to put power in the hands of people and encourage solidarity with community members, instead of criminalization.

It's worth noting that many of the complaints reported through BART Watch were about homelessness or panhandling on the train. But evidence has shown that the most effective and cost efficient way to end homelessness is simply to provide housing to homeless people--not to report them to police.

By encouraging passengers to report these types of complaints, BART is furthering our punishment economy, wherein we find punitive solutions to social problems that actually require reinvestment in communities.