It's difficult to overstate technology's importance in the Black Lives Matter movement. Bystander cell phone video has made it harder, if somehow still not impossible, to ignore the seemingly endless killings of African Americans by police. That technology is changing and improving: It was Facebook Live video, streaming in real time, that captured the horrifying moments after a police officer shot Philando Castile at a traffic stop in Falcon, Minnesota, his daughter and girlfriend beside him in the car as he died.
And yet, as Iranian-born Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist Shervin Pishevar illustrates, it remains possible to overestimate the usefulness of technology, or rather to imagine technological solutions in order to avoid more pressing and difficult social and policy work. With his company Sherpa Capital, Pishevar has invested in Uber, Airbnb, and Slack. Now he wants to develop an app for people like Castile who are stopped by officers in their vehicles, an app that would provide a means of communication to keep these two parties from physically interacting.
I hope this idea spreads and begins to save lives. https://t.co/MdKZ9hKv1H— Shervin Pishevar (@shervin) July 7, 2016
As Pishevar tells USA Today, "The police officer would still be in their car. The person would still be in their car... The mobile app would put distance between the police officer and the citizen and a lot of stuff could happen automatically."
Other technologists like Anil Dash, who has railed against such "solutionism" in many forms, expressed disapproval for the idea.
Apps cannot fix decades of institutional antiblackness & racist violence. But the power & influence of tech *can* pressure policymakers.— Anil Dash (@anildash) July 7, 2016
Though confronted with criticism from Dash and others, Pishevar stood by his plan. "If the app existed the interaction between the police officer and man could have happened via the app," he said, seeming to address Castile's killing directly. "There would be no reason for the officer to ask for the license and registration. It could have been confirmed via the app... If he was licensed to carry (as Castile was), the app could send notification and he drop the gun on the ground."
To illustrate just some of the problems with this idea, let's consider a more local example. It's unlikely an app would have saved the life of Jessica Williams, who was shot and killed on May 19 near Elmira Street and Shafter Avenue in the Bayview. Officers appear to have fired on Williams, a 27-year-old black woman who was unarmed, homeless, and suspected of operating a stolen vehicle, moments after she crashed that car, seemingly in an attempt to avoid them.
Williams' killing also feels particularly pertinent this week as an example of the painfully long investigation process endemic to our current police system. While Williams' death came quickly, as did the removal of Police Chief Greg Suhr, an investigation into SFPD officers' use of force that day has been infuriatingly slow. That pace is in keeping with the findings of a San Francisco Civil Grand Jury: Investigations into the use of deadly force by San Francisco Police officers take too long and provide the public with too little information. Though the Grand Jury's recommendations released yesterday are non-binding, they're shaped by mounting evidence in the form of document, records, and testimony that will demand the attention of city officials.
"The citizens of San Francisco are not provided enough information to determine whether the current OIS (officer involved shooting) investigation process works properly or whether the results of these investigations are fair and just," argues the report, titled "Into The Open: Opportunities For More Timely And Transparent Investigations Of Fatal San Francisco Police Department Officer Involved Shootings." Currently, as CBS 5 explains, incidences when officers shoot citizens are investigated simultaneously by police and the District Attorney's office. The recommendation of the Civil Grand Jury report, which follows a five-month investigation, is that the city create a task force to oversee investigations. That task force would ideally include members from the DA's office, the Sheriff's Office, the Office of Citizen Complaints, the Office of theMedical Examiner, and police. The report also counsels the city to streamline the investigation process while providing more transparency to the public.
It's in this last task, the work of quickly providing citizens with the information they need to hold police accountable, that technology might prove more useful than, say, in the case of app-based police communication. Campaign Zero, a website and policy platform developed by prominent Black Lives Matter activists including Johnetta Elzie and DeRay McKesson, offers one example. Its website breaks down the systemic problem of police violence into a set of concrete solutions, complicated factors that are neatly visualized. The site also points to a series of reports tracking those solutions and their implementation.
"Digital tools have been the infrastructure that have allowed this movement to operate so quickly and so impactfully across the world," Samuel Sinyangwe, a policy analyst and data scientist with Campaign Zero, told SFist. Formerly a San Francisco resident, Sinyangwe now lives in New York City, and with regard to his statement, it's hard not to think of Twitter, a platform on which he and so many activists like Elzie and McKesson are extremely active.
"In San Francisco," says Sinyangwe, "incredibly skilled people want to do good and have the skills to visualize information." But it's here that Sinyangwe importantly draws the line between tool and solution. "We're not going to end police violence by, for example, just adding body cameras," he says. "It's going to take action on all ten of [Campaign Zero's] policy categories to achieve meaningful change."