(CBS Local)- The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this year have brought renewed discussions around police brutality, the need for reform and how situations like traffic stops can escalate to the point of violence against Black Americans resulting in loss of life.
In an attempt to make those situations more safe, and driven by encounters of his own with police, Atlanta native Mbye Njie founded an app called Legal Equalizer in 2014. At that time, the protests following the death of Michael Brown were ongoing and the country was beginning to have its first real conversations about the topics that continue to permeate the news today.
It was during that time that Njie was pulled over three separate times by police in the span of a week. The third time he was held in the back of a police car after an officer told him he had a warrant on him. But, after inspecting Njie’s car for 30 minutes, the officer let him go. That interaction crystallized in Njie’s mind the need to understand his rights in these situations and an idea of helping others which led to Legal Equalizer.
Available in both the iOS and Android app stores, the app allows users to enter up to five people from their contacts list that they want to notify if they find themselves in a traffic stop situation. From there, all the user has to do is push a button on the app and a text with the situation and location will be sent to those contacts. Furthermore, in the latest update, it allows the user to send a zoom link to those contacts so they can listen in on the interaction between the user and officer.
As Njie explains, that’s for the benefit not only of the person using the app, but the officer as well.
“It’s accountability on all sides for everybody,” said Njie in an interview with CBS Local’s Ryan Mayer. “If the officer pulls you over for speeding, gives you a ticket and lets you go, great job officer. Thank you, have a great day. If the officer pulls you over for speeding and starts asking you what are you doing, why you’re in the neighborhood, where are you going, all those other questions, that’s not why he pulled you over. And you have five people that are going to witness that now.”
In building the app, Njie went to police departments and asked them how they would like to see citizens respond in these situations and used their input as part of the apps “how to” section that guides users on how to interact with police during a traffic stop or other situation. He says that while not all departments were thrilled at the idea of the app, he stressed to them it’s not meant to be an anti-police app or to say that all officers are bad.
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“The thing I always stressed with them is, this isn’t anti-police, this is pro accountability,” said Njie. “And this is actually something that’s going to be designed to help your officers that are maligned because you have a few officers who are doing the wrong. Most police chiefs I spoke with, most police departments will tell you, ‘hey, the majority of officers are great guys, great women that come in here and sacrifice their time, they’re helping out our community. It’s a few knuckleheads. So, when we discuss, I say this is a way you can hold these knuckleheads accountable.”
The app doesn’t just deal with traffic stops however. There are options to alert contacts to other unsafe situations such as immigration raids, domestic violence, active shooter situations and other general emergencies. The hope for Mbye, is that the app can be used in a proactive way for people in order to help avoid the tragic loss of life that we have seen over time.
“The goal of this app is for eventually when police pull you over, they know that five people are going to be watching them, they’re going to be on their best behavior,” said Njie. “And, hopefully, you’re going to be on your best behavior because I don’t think you’re going to do anything bad to an officer when your momma is watching you. That’s the goal I want. I want the interaction between those groups to change where there is some sense of here is the behavior that is now changing between us.”
The plans for the app continue to expand as well. The hope for the next iteration is that it will include an option for users to subscribe and then be able to access local lawyers for an on the spot consultation which would allow the users to get legal advice on what their rights are in certain situations on top of the legal explanations already available in the app.
While there are still some i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed before getting to that point, the hope is that would provide another service that people in these situations have not necessarily had access to previously.
In a year like 2020, where police brutality and reform have taken center stage in the national discussion, Njie says he has seen an increase in interest in the app. It’s unfortunate that these situations push surges in interest because his hope is that one day, things will be more proactive.
“That’s kind of the whole point of the app for me. I got us kind of being reactive to stuff. So this was a way for me to be proactive,” said Njie. “I tell people all the time, when I think about the video of Sandra Bland, the traffic stop, get pulled out because she didn’t put out her cigarette. I imagine what would happen if her mom and her sister were watching that stop. I don’t think she stays in jail for three or four days for anything to happen to her. That’s where I’m thinking about instead of having those reactions and those things, I want it where, okay we don’t even have to go that far.”
The Legal Equalizer app is available for download in both the iOS and Android app stores.