Amid roiling protests over the police killing of George Floyd, activist-coders have launched a decentralized protocol to document police misconduct reports, which are usually difficult to obtain.
The Police Accountability Now (PAN) Protocol is designed and built on the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) and the Ethereum blockchain, so it can’t be shut down by any central entity. The aim is for civilians and police officers to file misconduct reports in an anonymous and searchable way. By giving people anonymity, the organizers hope to give officers a way to break the “blue wall of silence,” or police culture that discourages officers from reporting each other.
“This protocol is meant to enable anyone to create a gateway/front end and let anyone log complaints. If a police officer wishes to report misconduct anonymously, that is better for everyone because, as I understand it, police are supposed to serve their communities and reporting the misdeeds of their colleagues is part of that service,” said the creator of the PAN protocol, who preferred not to give his real name but identified himself by the pseudonym Fred Hampton. (Fred Hamptonwas a Black Panther activist who was killed by law enforcement in 1969.)
Hampton said the idea for the protocol came about because, as a Black man in America, he’d personally had to deal with police misconduct from a very early age and had an intimate relationship with the problem.
Last Tuesday, the protocol launched on the Kovan testnet, a public Ethereum blockchain, covering police departments in the 50 most populous U.S. cities. It includes links to policies and procedures as well as department logos, with more information to come. The project asks users to file Freedom of Information Law requests to get officers’ names, badge numbers and other details to help populate the database.
Police misconduct reports are hard to obtain for journalists, much less members of the public. Reports are rarely seen by people outside of the police department, and police unions have actively worked to put in place protections that make records hard to access. Some are even destroyed after a certain amount of time has lapsed. USA Today, in a recent expose, found 85,000 cops who had been investigated for misconduct in the last decade.
A project from WNYC, a New York City public radio station, found records are confidential in 23 states; another 15 provide limited accessibility. Only 12 states make the records public.
Hampton said projects like the Chicago Reporter’s tracking of misconduct settlements are an after-the-fact documentation of the misconduct. And initiatives like the ACLU’s apps to record police misconduct are not comprehensive.
“The goal with PAN protocol is to have an unstoppable database that is fully transparent and searchable. Anyone, such as police departments that wish to follow the latest executive order or local press, can monitor the chain for reports against their local department and act accordingly,” said Hampton in an email.
While some may question the need for a decentralized approach, a previous example of monitoring police misconduct demonstrates why it may well be a necessity. A website launched in 2008 called RateMyCop acted as a review board for thousands of cops across the U.S. When it launched, it contained the names of over 140,000 police officers from more than 500 police departments across the United States. Akin to Yelp, it let users rate and leave reviews on cops.
“Having a website like that puts a lot of law enforcement, in my eyes, in danger because it exposes us out there,” an officer told ABC at the time. The website did not list the identity of any undercover officers, nor did it contain information like home addresses.
A few weeks later, the website’s hosting company, GoDaddy, shut it down for “suspicious activity.” The project bounced between other hosting companies, but eventually shut down in 2015. A decentralized protocol would’ve stopped GoDaddy from being able to unilaterally take the website down.
“Essentially what you’re doing with a website like this is you’re providing an additional disincentive for officers to engage in this conduct,” said Paul Hirschfield, a sociology professor at Rutgers University who is studying the social, political, and legal dynamics that explain why on-duty police violence rarely leads to criminal charges.
“This is potentially more organized than something like YouTube. It’s saying we could put a whole sort of dossier together on you and if there is a pattern of behavior it would be exposed.”
But he is concerned about the anonymity of people filing the reports though and the potential for people to make false reports . As it stands today, there is no mechanism to verify or verify reports posted.
“We leave vetting and verifying as an exercise to the reader,” said Hampton. “We highly encourage someone to build a follow on adjudication process/protocol that verifies/vets any claim put into the database.”
Such are the benefits and pitfalls of a decentralized protocol.
There are also technical barriers to use that users would need to be overcome. The protocol lays out step by step instructions on how to access and post to the protocol on it’s website. Doing so involves getting a privacy protecting email address such as Protonmail, signing up for a free github account, claiming some free kETH, and if possible, use a VPN, or virtual private network.
Hampton said he hopes that other people build on this protocol, making it easier for anyone to log complaints.
“I’d recommend that they read the instructions carefully and do their best to educate themselves on the associated technologies before proceeding,” said Hampton. “Luckily no real money is at stake for them to report.”