Mbye Njie had just pulled his Mazda 626 onto I-85, heading north toward his workplace in Doraville.
Christmas 2014 was approaching. He was easing into the holiday spirit, feeling good about his future when he noticed in his rear-view mirror a cop following him.
I’m about to get pulled over, he told a friend as they ended their phone conversation. That’s when he saw flashing lights from the patrol car.
Njie, a 34-year-old Gambian native who grew up 75 miles south of here in Macon, steered his car out of the traffic and waited.
What did I do wrong, he asked the officer.
There was a warrant out for his arrest.
Njie was stunned. He’d gotten a ticket for a traffic violation but a warrant for his arrest was out of the question.
The officer asked him to get out of the car and Njie complied. Minutes later he was handcuffed and made to sit in the back of the patrol car.
Forty minutes later, the officer let him go. He was mistaken. There was no warrant.
That might have been the end of the story except Njie did what he hopes more minority men and women do when they feel they’ve been victims of racial profiling:
Comply with the officer so they live to fight another day.
I know you think you know where this is going but before you get your tail feathers all ruffled up, stay with me.
The next day, Njie and his mother, Dr. Catherine Meeks, headed to the police department to file a complaint.
Officers there told them profiling was legal. Cops could use their discretion to pull citizens over. End of story.
When Meeks, a former professor of Women and Gender Studies and African American Studies at Mercer University and Wesleyan College, wrote about the encounter in the Macon Telegraph a week later, readers responded with the usual vitriol. Njie had to have done something to deserve the treatment.
“I started to wonder what would it be like if people could see what a traffic stop for me looked like,” Njie said recently.
The more he thought about it and talked it over with his friends, the more he realized something needed to be done to combat racial profiling. It happens a lot. It had happened to him.
Plus the rash of police shootings of African-American men weighed heavily on him.
He recalled his days at Davidson College, where he graduated in 2004 with a degree in anthropology. For most of his freshman and sophomore years, Njie and his friends were pulled over by cops almost every time they left the Mecklenburg County campus.
“We got sick of it,” he said.
Realizing knowledge is power, the friends headed to the library, printed out the Bill of Rights and the state laws of North Carolina, took a yellow highlighter and marked any that applied to stops and searches by police.
Over time, he said, police got the message. They knew their rights. The stops stopped.
And so soon after that last stop in December 2014, it hit Njie.
If people actually knew the law, there would probably be fewer negative police encounters and hopefully fewer shootings of civilians.
Could there be an app for that?
Over the next few months, Njie and a few of his friends put their heads together and created Legal Equalizer, a free mobile app that allows users to send alerts and video of encounters with police and others.
Here’s how it works: Simply tap the SOS button and an alert is automatically sent to three emergency contacts saved to the app when it is downloaded. The message gives your location and lets them know you’ve been stopped by police.
You can then swipe to the right and the laws will automatically pop up. Tap another button on the app and a video recorder tapes the encounter, which will be saved and sent to your three contacts.
Ayanna Jones-Lightsy is a civil litigation attorney who believes Legal Equalizer can fundamentally change our interactions with law enforcement.
“When we record our interactions, and then send them out into the cloud we are given a voice that we haven’t had before,” she said. “The video itself becomes a rallying point.”
In addition, she said, the app is a quick reference for the laws around search and seizure, which is what a stop and an arrest are.
“A democracy only works when the citizenry are informed,” Jones-Lightsy said.
She said the app could reduce the need to act in hostile or overly aggressive ways during police interactions because a person knows he or she isn’t completely backed into a corner and bound by the consequences of his or her word against the officer’s.
“The side of the road is not where you want to have an argument with the officer,” Njie said. “You’re going to lose every single time. The point of the app is to let people know their rights so that they can take their stand in the proper forum.”
At the end of the day, whether you’re Joe Citizen or a police officer, everybody wants to get home safely.
Njie wants to make sure you get there.
“I wish there was no need for it,” he said. “It saddens me that we’ve gotten to the point where we need to record the people who are charged with protecting us but that’s the world we live in now.”
Njie and his partners are still looking for investors to update the app with local laws in addition to the Bill of Rights. Instead of having to read the items, they want to add voice technology and obtain a patent to turn this technology into software that can then be installed in every car in America.
“If somebody gives us money, we will turn you into a billionaire with that idea,” Njie says.
I, for one, think he just might be right about that.