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A team of graduate students at the University of Florida is working on technology to make traffic stops safer and more transparent– both for the people pulled over (who are disproportionately black and Latino), and for the officers involved. Youth Radio’s Nina Roehl spoke with Dekita Moon and Isabel Laurenceau, two Ph.D. students and researchers who created the mobile app, Virtual Traffic Stop.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nina Roehl: How did you get the idea to create Virtual Traffic Stop?
Dekita Moon: We noticed that at routine traffic stops police officers were getting struck by cars and shootings were happening. So we were asking ourselves, “What could we do to help the situation and support police officers as well as citizens?”
NR: Can you tell me how the app works?
Isabel Laurenceau: So a driver would download Virtual Traffic Stop and they would fill in their information before they even get in the car. So that way if they are pulled over [assuming that both the driver and the police officer are connected via the software], the officer will be able to get all the information that they would normally get, but without the driver leaving their car– using video conference.
NR: What goes into creating an app like this?
IL: We talked to different police departments and then came back to them to see what their concerns were and what they liked and what they didn’t like.
DM: We had to figure out what kinds of concerns police officers have when they’re pulling someone over. For instance, some police officers don’t like to use the laptop because they don’t want to look down.
IL: And on top of that, we did actual physical ride-alongs. So we went with police officers for a few hours and saw them conduct a traffic stop.
NR: What’s your biggest dream for the app–like best case scenario?
DM: First using the app nationwide and minimizing the negative things that happen during a traffic stop as much as possible. So we’ll see a lesser amount of police officers being struck by ongoing cars. Also furthering the communication between civilians and police officers.
NR: What have the initial responses been like?
DM: Honestly there’s been more positive than negative responses. I mean, sometimes people are skeptical, and we believe that’s because when you’re changing something that has been the same for so long, it’s not always comfortable. But at the same time, even people that have negative feelings about it still realize the impact that it can have on saving lives and allowing police officers and civilians to connect before even making face to face contact.
NR: Every routine traffic stop is different. How does the app account for the different types of situations?
IL: We like to think of the app as a tool, something the officers can use. So let’s say that they’re using the app and they feel the need to go up and talk to somebody because something is missing. They still are able to get out there and conduct their traffic stop how they wish.
DM: Also if the user has a disability or they’re unable to speak English, they’re able to add in a third party. So there’s different scenarios that we’ve thought about so that everyone is accessible as much as possible.
NR: To address a problem like racial profiling or police violence–what’s technology good at? And where does tech fall short?
IL: We also like to think of the app as a deescalation tool so that people can see who they’re talking with before they even [get out of the car] and they can feel a little bit more comfortable before they go on to this very stressful interaction.
NR: Is there any last points you want to add that we didn’t cover?
DM: I think that a lot of times people try to see whether or not we’re picking a side. Whether we’re for the police or for the people that are getting pulled over. In all honestly, we just want to make sure that everybody gets home safe.