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Does the ‘Citizen’ app reimagine public safety, or reenforce fears?

The social media-style crime avoidance app provides plenty of information, but little context.
Tamar Sarai Davis October 1st, 2020
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Around 1:30 AM on a late August night, I found myself wide awake in bed doomscrolling on Twitter when I heard the ring of shots, loud and clear enough for me to know that they were only a few blocks away. It had been a summer of chaos, cries, mid-evening applause, and incessant firecrackers, so I’d almost become desensitized to unexpected sounds, but the tone of the blasts that evening sounded a bit different. I peeked out my window. It was pitch dark but I could hear shouts, a wailing, and the honking of nearby cars. After a brief moment of hesitation, I returned to my phone and downloaded “Citizen,” an app I had heard about casually, looked upon rather disdainfully, but now saw as the quickest option to learn what was going on just around the corner.

Sure enough, after too-quickly sharing my name, email, and location, I could see that just a block away, shots indeed had been fired. Accompanying the reported incident was shaky video footage of police cars parked in front of an apartment and officers inspecting the scene. Right below, in a feature that looked almost identical to Instagram, comments from nearby users were flooding in.

“Was anyone hurt? Praying for kids.” 

“The only Black lives that matter are the hard working innocent law abiding citizens and children. Not these criminal thugs they martyr.”

“Overtime was cut drastically and why should the cops do anything? Everytime they shoot a criminal it’s a problem.”

Citizen’s interface, with its comments and reaction features, video and photo upload capabilities, and navigable map looked not much different from the social media apps I just had signed off from. Now, as the night approached 2 AM, I found myself doing a different kind of doomscrolling as I saw other people in my neighborhood hide under the cloak of vague usernames and map their own racist projections onto an incident that occurred only moments ago and about which no one knew very much at all.

A growing body of people were now glorifying the police that had just arrived at the scene while denouncing the calls to defund them as inane. I questioned why I had downloaded the app at all, and wondered why any of the other 1,000+ users in my area had as well. Was it to remain vigilant about potential danger nearby or just to satiate our own curiosities about what was going on around our block, knowing that having that information wouldn’t impact our actual level of safety at all?

The social mediafication of public safety

When Citizen first launched in 2016, it went by the name “Vigilant.” That moniker, along with its commercials showing users receiving an alert and rushing to the scene of an incident, drew criticism from both the general public and local police departments for encouraging users to get involved in responding crime. Amid the controversy, the App Store removed the app in November of 2016, but by the spring of 2017 it had returned, rebranded under the name “Citizen.” Now, new ad placements promoted the app as a way for users to learn of nearby crime and stay away from it. 

A photo of the Citizen app. (Photo Credit: Tamar Sarai Davis)
A photo of the Citizen app. (Photo Credit: Tamar Sarai Davis)

Citizen currently operates in over 20 cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and its fastest-growing market, Chicago, where the app has close to 300,000 users. Its largest membership by far is in New York City, where it first launched and where one in four residents have downloaded the app. Citizen hopes to be in at least 30 cities by the end of 2020.

In each city, the application pulls information from calls made to local police, EMT, and fire departments. Citizen’s team of live monitors then filters through these reports and places related information on the app. According to the company’s website, monitors filter out a large subset of the incidents reported to 911, prioritizing only those that are in progress or those they believe could reasonably pose a danger to the public. This excludes minor crimes, medical incidents, traffic stops, verbal disputes that do not include any weapons, and reports of “suspicious persons or activities.” Instead, users are only alerted to incidents like active shootings and robberies, environmental disasters like fires or gas leaks, missing person reports, and heightened police activity or crime canvassing.

Because Citizen can access this information in real time and then display it quickly, users often become aware of incidents before police or local news even arrive at the scene. That instant access to information is what compelled Ben Jealous, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to become an early investor in Citizen and to serve as an advisor for the company since 2018. In a February interview with Cleveland.com, Jealous likened his support for the app to the NAACP’s campaign to get more street lights in cities across the country during the early 1900s.  

“Citizen is the 21st century street light,” said Jealous. “We give to you today what street lights have always done, make it a little easier for you to see what’s in front of you, a little easier for you to see someone you may need to avoid or someone who may need your help.”

While Citizen bills itself as a tool for crime avoidance, the app’s design offers users many avenues to involve themselves in the incidents that flash upon their screens. When a user logs on, they’ll find a satellite map like the navigable one featured on ride-sharing applications like Lyft or Uber. Based on their location, Citizen will show the user whether and where any “incidents” have occurred within the past few hours, marking them with time-stamped updates. Once incidents appear on the map, users can leave comments or react to them using emojis like sympathetic hearts or praying hands. According to Citizen, the comments feature is meant to house live updates from users who may be close to the scene and might have pertinent information, such as where a user last saw someone who fit the description of a missing person.

But the comments aren’t all useful. Some users, like Karen Datangel from San Francisco, have noted how comments on violent incidents quickly become political. Datangel says these comments also frequently come from Citizen users who don’t even live in the area.

Datangel, who started using the app earlier this year, says that while incidents in her neighborhood are usually non-violent—like car accidents, fires, and break-ins and don't garner many comments—community engagement in other parts of San Francisco where violent incidents are more frequent is far higher.

“When people comment on those sorts of incidents, it tends to get very political and just bashes our district attorney, our other local politicians, and the fact that we are diverting resources from the police department,” wrote Datangel in an email to Prism. “I understand some of the frustration, but to me it just parrots a bunch of talking points that I’ve heard from right-wing trolls. It really makes me question if those people are real or even live in San Francisco.”

Datangel was initially intrigued by the app because of the opportunities for “citizen journalism” that it provided, including commenting with live updates and uploading videos. Some videos have even been featured in local news broadcasts.

But the video feature also highlights the discrepancy between Citizen’s purported crime avoidance mission and the way the app is actually used. That kind of user-generated content requires engaging with the scene of the incident, and doing so in a way that feels familiar to a brain already wired for social media. For the company itself, that user-generated content also enables it to thrive.

“A complementary strategy”

But Citizen isn’t just reliant on users. The app’s functionality also depends on local law enforcement, which places it in a complex position in the current political moment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, law enforcement features prominently in the company’s leadership. Former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton is a Citizen board member, and the company also hired Peter Donald, a former NYPD spokesperson, as its head of policy and communications in 2018. Outside of these leadership and advisory roles, however, Citizen says it does not have any formal relationships with local police departments.

In recent years, Citizen has also cultivated relationships with violence interruption groups that aim to reduce contact between the police and community members. Organizations focusing on conflict mediation like CURE Violence in Chicago and LIFE Camp in New York City use Citizen to identify in real time when incidents involving gun violence, domestic violence, or gang violence are occurring in their neighborhood. By using the app, they can often arrive at the scene before the police, learn what is happening, and ultimately de-escalate the situation.

Last week, Citizen added Newark, New Jersey, to its roster and is launching a formal partnership with the Newark Community Street Team (NCST), a violence interruption group founded in 2014 by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. NCST uses a three-pronged approach to addressing violence in the south and west wards of Newark. According to Aqeela Sherrills, director of NCST and an advisor to Citizen, NCST emerged after quality of life was deteriorating in these communities despite increases in law enforcement deployment. In addition to providing community members with resources, NCST says they use a trauma-informed approach to mediate violence in real time. The group responds to a minimum of three incidents a day and unlike the Newark Police Department (NPD) , 99% of the team lives in the communities that they serve, says Sherrills.

Currently, NSTC receives the majority of the intelligence about where incidents are occurring either the community or directly from law enforcement through the NPD dispatch. However, they usually receive these dispatches from the NPD an hour to an hour and a half after the incident has already occurred. Having access to Citizen, Sherrills says, will tremendously improve the speed of their work.

“[With Citizen,] you have both the community who can update it and who can participate in the safety process by saying, 'Hey, this is what I just saw happen on my block,' in addition to Citizen dispatchers putting out that 911 information 30 seconds faster than NPD,” said Sherrills. “Sometimes we get a notification on the Citizen app that doesn't even come through the dispatch with NPD. So honestly it's a cleaner, better source of intelligence and information for our high-risk intervention team to be able to respond to.”  

Sherrills describes the app as a “game changer” in its ability to shave off seconds between an incident occurring, NCST learning about it, and then deploying their team to address it. “Seconds save lives,” said Sherrills.

NCST is also pushing Newark residents to download the app themselves to share videos and updates that can help them better scope out incidents and gain as much information on them as quickly as possible.

For proponents of the defunding and eventual abolition of the police, Citizen could potentially be a tool for the type of community-based alternatives that have already seen success. In fact, this summer, the app saw an increase in use and a new functionality as members used it to identify where protests against police violence were occurring in their cities. Demonstrators shared live video footage and followed updates about whether and where there was growing police presence at different protest sites.

However, in interviews with Prism, both Sherrills and representatives from Citizen describe the app not as an alternative to policing, but rather a “complementary strategy,” with the idea that while there are incidents that the police cannot and should not get involved in, there still needs to be some kind of enforcement of “law and order.” Further, Citizen constructs itself as an information bridge between the public and the police and thus depends upon police calls in order to report incidents that eventually land on people’s phones. As such, their information sharing model is reliant upon an ongoing public faith—or at least marginal public investment—in policing.

Reimagining public safety, or reinforcing fears?

Beyond its entanglement with law enforcement, Citizen raises questions about what actually provides public safety and how durable those conceptions of safety are at a time when many are pushing the world to radically reimagine them.

While Citizen does diverge from apps like Amazon Ring and its accompanying app Neighbor in it’s content moderation and exclusion of offenses that result in targeting people of color (it does not feature “suspicious persons” incidents, while Ring allows its users to flag people captured on video as suspicious), it does little to integrate a broader conception of public safety centered on people’s ability to meet their basic needs. As the public increasingly engages in conversations about why violence occurs and the role that access to housing, food, employment, and education play in reducing it, Citizen buys into an abridged depiction of the cycle of violence by focusing solely on the moment that harm occurs.

Indeed, among one of the most common user critiques of Citizen centers on the paranoia that can result from the app’s near-constant alerts. Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, says that tech platforms like Citizen can further widen the gap between public perceptions of crime and actual data that shows that crime has steadily been decreasing.

“It's sort of surrounding you with information that creates an impression that statistics are wrong and subjective perceptions are right,” said Rosenberg. “And so that creates a push for more aggressive public safety actions that isn't necessarily substantiated by any real data.”

“I rethink where I want to go”

Jazmine Raveneau, a current Citizen user living in the South Bronx, is familiar with that sense of heightened danger. Despite being born and raised in the area and having strong emotional and familial ties there, Citizen has made Raveneau reevaluate the safety level of her neighborhood. While smaller interpersonal conflicts do not worry her as much, incidents like shootings or robberies that could hurt passersby have made her second guess even staying in the area.

“I talk to my husband all the time and I tell him we need to move, like safety is a problem,” said Raveneau in an interview with Prism. “And I feel like honestly, before the Citizen app I felt safer. But now, knowing that there are things that are going on that I'm not personally witnessing, it does scare me a little bit. And it's something that plays a part in our decision to want to move mostly for our daughter. You know, I think we're okay—like, if it's adults it's fine, but we want our daughter to live in a safer environment.”

She checks the app daily, sometimes out of boredom or other times when she receives a notification. She currently has alerts for the app’s new COVID-19 tracking feature. Raveneau says she’s not quite invested enough in the app to upload content like videos or photos or scan what is going on in other cities. Instead, she uses it to keep track of incidents going on within a five-block radius.

“There are a lot of times like Monday through Friday where it's just me and my daughter while my husband works and I'll take her on walks,” said Raveneau. “So I'm just trying to see where is the hot spot, basically. A couple of days ago, there was a shooting, no one got injured, but it was like straight gunfire and I was just really nervous because that's the route that I take [to go shopping]. So I kind of rethink where I want to go.”

Even as the app raises Raveneau’s concerns about violence in her neighborhood, she recognizes how it might lead other Citizen users to look at her neighborhood in problematic ways. She recalls for example, a mid-summer shootout near a playground this year that garnered a lot of comments lambasting what users described as “the ghetto.” To add to the offense, Raveneau says her husband noted that many of the worst comments were coming from users who were not even in New York.  

Ultimately, both Raveneau and Dantangel said that while Citizen has made them more acutely aware of violence in their cities and has improved their ability to navigate around it, the app has not made them feel any safer.

As for me, over the next few days after I downloaded the app, I returned to Citizen intermittently. I saw information about COVID-19 infection rates, warnings about a nearby gas leak, robberies, and assaults—all information that could be useful, if not life-saving--depending on where I was going.

However, Citizen’s own name—which implies not just living in a city but being part of its social and political fabric—belies what it can actually achieve. While it can be an extremely useful tool for ensuring one's own personal safety, its success in terms of public safety is far less clear. If this year’s uprisings are telling us anything, it’s that the most crucial part of divesting from systems like policing is investing in community resources, because harm always sits within a larger set of interconnected conditions. Citizen provides a sleek interface, quick updates, and plenty of information—what it doesn’t offer is context.

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