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When Kona Shen moved back to the United States in 2014 after a few years in Haiti, she returned to a country grappling with police brutality. Eric Garner was killed in a police officer’s chokehold that July and Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August.
“I came back to the U.S. around the same time as Mike Brown and Eric Garner, and my cofounder is from St. Louis, right next to Ferguson, and he had seen everything firsthand growing up,” Shen said. “We had the luxury of figuring out what to do about it.”
Shen knew her next project had to be something that would help. While starting graduate school at Stanford, she joined up with fellow student Mustafa Abdul-Hamid to figure out a way to communicate to police departments how their communities really feel and to help communities have their voices heard.
The result is My90, a platform that lets people communicate feedback anonymously with their local police departments. Anyone who was pulled over, stopped and frisked, or just wants to share their experience with an officer can text My90’s number. The platform complements the work of Black Lives Matter and other activist groups by opening up a new line of communication between communities and law enforcement.
My90 complements activism by opening up a new line of communication.
But the startup doesn’t have an app—it’s all through two-way text messaging so that users don’t need to have a smartphone to share their experiences. The name comes from the startup’s statistic that “90 percent of the story is lost when the public and the police interact.”
“We’re trying to use technology—accessible technology like text messages—to reach not only more people, but also people not showing up on platforms like Nextdoor,” Shen said, referring to the neighborhood watch app that has been criticized for being a haven for racism.
My90 doesn’t only use language like asking if residents were “satisfied” with their police encounter. Instead, the platform gets granular and asks if officers were professional and respectful and if they followed police procedure by introducing themselves and letting people ask questions. The platform will also send out information like reminding users that officers are often supposed to give them a business card with their identifying information after an encounter.
People who use My90 can share more information about their police encounters as they communicate more with the platform over time.
Law enforcement officials then see anonymized, aggregated feedback. My90 will tell police departments, for example, if 40 percent of their community has the same concern.
“The chief of police hears what people want to say but doesn’t know who they are,” Shen said.
My90 started its pilot program over summer 2016 and now works with law enforcement in Santa Clara and San Jose, California; Pasco, Washington; Indianapolis; and Irving, Texas. The organization depends on an advisory board of community activists and retired chiefs of police as well as partnerships with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives as it reaches out to more departments nationwide. The process can be complicated, since law enforcement is decentralized, with each local department making its own decisions.
But law enforcement officials have been receptive to My90’s ideas.
“I always assumed the response from police would be more difficult than it’s been. Chiefs know they need to engage the community. What they don’t usually know is how best to do that,” Shen said.
Law enforcement has used My90 to try to better gauge how communities are feeling. If President Donald Trump makes another anti-immigration comment, for example, departments want to know how that affects how immigrants feel about law enforcement.
My90 works as a middle ground between civilian and activist groups and police departments. The B2G—or business-to-government—approach is another tool for communities to have their voices heard and a way for law enforcement to better understand what they need to do better.
My90 is growing, and the startup is set to graduate from an accelerator program whose demo day falls on Shen’s due date. She started the accelerator while pregnant and found out about the slight scheduling conflict on the first day.
“To me it seems obvious this is going to change a lot over course of our lifetimes,” Shen said about law enforcement-community relations. “This is the first time law enforcement has changed this quickly in years.”