Law school students develop app to automate police complaint process

Team from University of Alberta recently won Georgetown Law’s Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational

Law school students develop app to automate police complaint process

They recently won an international legal tech competition and the University of Alberta law students who created an app that automates the police-complaint process say their technology has the scalability to be implemented in jurisdictions across Canada.

The app interviews users with plain language questions and determines whether there are legal grounds for an official complaint. It then generates a formal, statute-cited letter and submits it to the chief of police, police commission, the department of professional standards and the province’s minister of justice.

The app was created by U of A law students, Karyna Omelchenko, Prabhjot Punnia, Darren Wagner and Denis Ram. While currently being developed for Calgary and Edmonton, the tool can easily adapt to any province in Canada, as well as foreign jurisdictions, say its creators.

On April 30, the team took the top prize at the Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational. The contest is hosted by Georgetown Law School in Washington D.C. and brings together law students from across the world to showcase tech solutions which advance access to justice.

The team will present the app to the Calgary City Council on June 8 and the city will vote whether to approve a $45,000 investment. The Edmonton Police Service and the University of Alberta also plans on devoting a $10,000 joint seed grant to Dr. Nidhi Hegde, U of A associate professor and fellow at the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute. Dr. Hegde will use the money to study the app’s code for fairness, privacy and the utility of its data for policy development and police training.

“Our goal is to create the best open-source platform for police complaints,” says Ram. “… Because this is something that is just really needed… Once we have the app completed, translated, and everything is done for the City of Calgary and that's up, that's then going to be a template for the rest of North America, and then the rest of the world.”

The app’s genesis was a public hearing on anti-racism, hosted by the City of Calgary, and convened in response to the murder of George Floyd, says Ram.

“Throughout those three days, we just heard, time after time, citizens coming with unreported police complaint after unreported police complaint,” he says. “We noticed that there was a gap in accessing justice… We really knew that there needed to be something done with regard to the police complaint process.”

Currently, Calgarians can go to the website of either the city, the police service or the police commission, and type their complaint into what is “more or less just a big text box,” says Ram.

“You guess what may or may not be relevant. It's really intimidating. You're not sure what's going to happen,” he says.

The team built the app for a course called Coding the Law, in which they were assigned a project where they had to build a tool that would serve clients and increase access to justice, using an open-source legal-automation tool called DocAssemble.

After the city council anti-racism hearing, Ram had worked as a political consultant for a number of councillors, including Ward 8’s Evan Woolley, doing research on the Calgary police. He had also conducted research related to policing for the Alberta Government’s Fair Deal Panel. The data he obtained through these experiences formed the preliminary research Ram and the team used for the app.

During the app’s development, Ram and the team collaborated with Councillor Woolley’s office, which was excited about the plain-language aspect of the tool because part of their work consisted of helping constituents with low-English comprehension fill out these and similar forms.

“They were very excited about the potential end-to-end, full-user coverage without any need for anyone to intervene,” says Ram. “And then throughout this process, the Ward 8 team has really been the backbone behind advocating our app to all the different levels of the city.”

If the City of Calgary approves their funding, the team will get to work on translating the app into eight different languages, Calgary’s most common according to census data, as well as two local Indigenous languages.

“Having services on the city or police website that is in your own mother tongue, or the common language of the household, I mean, that's instrumental to having people being able to communicate their concerns or their issues to the police,” says Wagner.

The short-term goal is for their app to be where Calgarians go to lodge complaints about the city’s police.

For the technology to be adopted by other cities in Alberta, all that needs to change in the code are three email addresses, says Ram. To implement the system in other provinces, the app just needs to be paired with the respective Police Services acts.

“It's actually quite a ready and easy fix to do that with the design and the framework already put in place,” says Wagner.

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