New app helps UFPD during traffic stops

The UF Police Department is partnering with UF researchers to test a new mobile app that will help police ease tensions with drivers during traffic stops.
The UF Police Department is partnering with UF researchers to test a new mobile app that will help police ease tensions with drivers during traffic stops.
Courtesy of UF

UF researchers have partnered with the UF Police Department (UFPD) to test a new mobile app starting Tuesday that will assist campus police ease tensions and prevent misunderstandings between drivers and law enforcement during traffic stops.

According to a UF release, the free app, called Virtual Traffic Stop (VTS), will allow law enforcement officers to communicate with drivers via smartphone video before approaching a vehicle during a traffic stop. The objective is to reduce anxiety caused by the stop through the initial video interaction.

UF Dr. Juan E. Gilbert
Courtesy of UF Dr. Juan E. Gilbert

“VTS empowers drivers and law enforcement to navigate traffic stops with ease and confidence by serving as an ice breaker that fosters an open dialogue between all involved,” said Dr. Juan E. Gilbert, a UF computer science professor, said in the release. “There are so many different ways where VTS can provide an opportunity to de-escalate a stressful situation, making traffic stops safer for everyone.”

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Gilbert and a team of students created the VTS app following a series of police shootings, starting with one in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The app can be downloaded on iOS and Android devices. 

To use VTS, users will create an account by entering their name, driver’s license, phone number and the vehicles they drive prior to an interaction with law enforcement. According to the release, “If stopped by a law enforcement officer, the driver could initiate a session through the app before the officer approaches the vehicle.”

To protect the driver’s privacy, the application does not allow officers to initiate a session. Once the driver launches the application, the officer can see the selected person who has opened a session nearby.

The app also makes it possible to involve a third party into the interaction — such as the parent of a minor or an advocate for someone in need of one.  

UFPD Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick
Courtesy of UF UFPD Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick

Gilbert partnered with the UFPD to conduct a pilot test of VTS with a small group of trained officers. UFPD started testing the application on Aug. 8. The research team welcomes any agencies willing to participate in the pilot program. Gilbert is encouraging drivers to download the app to participate as well. 

According to the release, UFPD was selected by the UF research team to lead the pilot because its policing model is student and community oriented and UFPD Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick prioritizes transparency and communication with the public, Gilbert said. The agency was recently recognized by federal law enforcement for its implementation of progressive policing models. 

“Our priority at the University of Florida Police Department is to enhance the quality of life of our campus community by fostering a sense of security,” Stump-Kurnick said in a press release. “We understand that traffic stops can be stressful, which is why we are always searching for ways to ensure interactions with law enforcement end safely and, if possible, on a positive note.”

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