Last summer, in the wake of anti-racism protests that occurred in Calgary and throughout the country, a group of law students from the University of Alberta set out to create a tool to address the current police complaint system.
That tool is an app called Clear Justice. Although solving systemic racism is a long road with many moving parts, the creators of this app are seeking to eliminate one roadblock.
The developers are seeking $45,000 in cash from the City of Calgary’s Innovation Fund. That matter will be heard at the June 8 Priorities and Finance committee meeting.
Denis Ram is one of four law students from the University of Alberta who came together after the city’s July 7, 2020 meeting of the Standing Policy Committee. Calgary’s commitment to anti-racism was discussed at that public meeting.
Various speakers were at the meeting, including Ram. They all spoke out about police brutality and the hurdles that were in place preventing their voices from being heard.
“At the anti-racism hearings, we heard unreported police complaint after unreported police complaint,” Ram said.
“I was one of the speakers talking about systemic racism in the city. After I spoke I went back into the stands and cried a little bit because reliving those experiences of racism is hard.”
Problems with current complaint system
Coming out of that meeting, Ram concluded that one of the major issues contributing to systemic racism is not having an adequate system to voice complaints against the police.
The team was able to create a streamlined complaint system that addresses several key issues that plague the current system. They did this without any of them being professional developers.
“We looked at the complaint portal itself, and right now it is more or less just a big text box where you have to guess what may or may not be relevant,” Ram said.
“Even someone like myself who is legally trained, I’m unlikely to fill out all the information that is needed the first time.”
Clear Justice has several key design principles that elevate it above implemented systems.
Making it easier to submit a complaint
The actual ease of language used in the app is more friendly to those making complaints. Each question that someone is asked to fill out is spelled out matter-of-factly. The way a lawyer would ask their clients. This eliminates any confusion on the part of the complainant. That is very much a byproduct of the law school background of the developers.
Once the complaint is submitted, it’s compared against the actual statute, specifically the Alberta police regulation. This lists out what is considered police misconduct. Once the complaint goes through, it has the appearance of a professionally written legal letter. It would appear as though a lawyer had written it.
One of the key philosophies was ensuring that those who file complaints don’t need to relive the situation through the complaint.
“Speaking with members of the community, they told us about how it is really intimidating to try and relive what happened. It is retraumatizing. Especially if English isn’t your first language or your literacy skills are behind,” Ram said.
“This is also addressed in the way we worded questions. We wanted to ensure with this design objective that the tone was appropriate, with the goal being, minimizing re-traumatization.”
Translation is also an issue that was addressed. The clear language used in the questions also means that it can be easily translated. Clear Justice is available in eight languages ranging from Blackfoot to Punjabi.
Councillor Evan Woolley said that his team assisted people with police complaints in the past because English was not the complainant’s first language. The police’s current system wasn’t built for filing complaints in other languages.
“Never mind language barriers, this has happened many times over my term in office. The first time I tried to fill out a complaint, just to see how it worked, I couldn’t do it. It was unbelievably inaccessible even for me, a privileged, upper class, white man,” Councillor Woolley said.
“It is not working as it is right now, and the Calgary Police Service has acknowledged that the complaint system doesn’t work.”
Awards and the future
The inadequacies of the current system and the innovation of Clear Justice earned the app two high-profile awards.
It won the 2020 UAlberta Access to Justice Technology Competition. Later, it was recognized internationally by winning the International Iron Tech Lawyer Competition.
The requested funding will provide the means to hire lawyers and back-end developers to finalize the coding for the app and any legal research that still needs to be done.
The services of a trauma psychologist to consult on trauma-informed language to be used in the app.