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Austin entrepreneur wants to 'de-escalate' racist traffic stops with app

Shortly after being pulled over, you get a text message. It's the cop, and they want you to get on a video call.

This is the future envisioned by Michael Odiari, an Austin entrepreneur who wants to "streamline and automate" traffic stops with a new app.

The app, called Check, allows users to upload their drivers license and car registration. Then, when the user is pulled over, the service sends a text invite to video chat with the officer, who already has the user's information.

"It's dangerous for both sides," Odiari said of police traffic stops. His app "provides a way for police and motorists to communicate without escalating" the situation.

Check's marketing promotes the app as a remedy for some of the racial disparities in regular traffic stops that garnered national attention over the summer. Late last month, protestors took to the streets in Omaha, Nebraska after police fatally shot a Black man in a traffic stop. And here in Austin, a recent study of local traffic stops in the city found black motorists were disproportionately pulled over by police.

Odiari, the son of a Nigerian immigrant, says he too has stared down the barrel of a police officer's gun in what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. During the incident, Odiari said the officer insisted that Odiari's vehicle registration was expired, even though it was not.

He believes the episode could have been smoothed with the app's services, which would transmit these documents to the officer before they approach the car.

The app also appeals to law enforcement, says Odiari, who spent more than 80 hours doing police ride-alongs. Approaching a motorist's vehicle in a traffic stop is often described in law enforcement training as one of the most dangerous situations for officers, although studies of data have challenged the notion.

Check currently has no contracts with police departments, though Odiari has been in talks with at least two in the Austin area.

Check's team is waiting to implement the video calling portion until they've built up a large enough user base through the app's other service—automating the traffic court visit.

Check has already attracted some investors.

"We would invest in this business even without the social justice component," said Oksana Malysheva, the CEO of Sputnik ATX, an investment group. "This is an elegant solution that serves both sides of the equation incredibly well."

But efforts to improve policing with technology—a movement which has gained traction in recent years through body cameras and data services like Palantir—have been criticized.

"Technology does very little to change the fundamental thing that police do," said Michael Sierra-Arévalo, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in crime and law enforcement issues.

He said the very nature of policing already promotes the kind of escalation that technology like Check hopes to prevent.

Previous attempts to reform police through technology have returned mixed results. Arévalo pointed to tasers, which were promoted roughly two decades ago as a way for police to de-escalate situations with non-violent force, however results have been mixed.

But Odiari remains hopeful.

"I'm not saying this is going to solve all the problems out there," Odiari said. "But this is a start for people to tell their government how they want police to communicate with them."


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