Inside Citizen, the App That Asks You to Report on Crimes

“There is some sort of a thrill going out and doing it,” says Logan Williams, a former contractor who filmed videos for Citizen in Los Angeles. “It’s a rush, it releases endorphins.”

In March, Citizen suspended its Street Team program and stopped all payments to its contractors, citing pandemic-related safety concerns. A Citizen spokesperson said the company hasn’t made any decisions about when the program might resume.

Thrilling and Chilling

Hobbyists and hyper-concerned civilians have monitored police radio chatter for decades. There are whole internet forums and communities on YouTube dedicated to following the communications of law enforcement, fire departments, and other first-response agencies. It’s an activity that attracts a certain personality type, curious and discerning. Citizen isn’t the first app that gives these enthusiasts the ability to livestream, but is the one that is completely dedicated to it. It’s no wonder amateur stringers flock to it.

“Everybody wants to be the hero, or the source, or a key player in a situation,” says Andy Frakes, a former Citizen employee responsible for sending out incident alerts. “For better for worse, unfortunately it’s usually for worse, people want to be involved, or just get that catharsis that for whatever reason they need more than anyone else.”

For someone like Anthony, it’s a kick just to get a look at the action.

“Seeing the lights and sirens just brings out the little kid inside of me,” Anthony says. “I don’t know. I just kind of like that stuff.”

It’s not all motivated by child-like wonder. Anthony’s time responding to hundreds of emergency calls has molded his grown-up aspirations. When Anthony gets older, he wants to be a cop.

“This obviously is not a good time to be in law enforcement with everything going on,” Hope admits. “But my heart goes out for the majority of law enforcement officers. So I feel like, if this is what he really wants to do when he gets older … I mean, he’s 12, so it could change. He could change his mind 10 times, but as of now, I think you let your kids follow their passion if it’s something they like to do.”

Thin Blue Line

The relationship between Citizen and law enforcement has always been uneven. When Citizen first launched in New York City, NYPD officials were overwhelmingly against it, frustrated by the idea that the app might encourage aspiring crimefighters. Bill Bratton, the former NYPD commissioner and co-architect of New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, staunchly opposed the app when he was in office. In an unexpected turn of events, Bratton has now become an advisor on Citizen’s board.

It has the potential to be a techy breakthrough in community engagement for emergency agencies. But for those not inclined to trust law enforcement, Citizen feels like yet another tool of mass policing.

“What the Citizen app is doing is empowering people as law enforcement, and we already know that’s a problem,” says Nicol Turner Lee, the tech policy advocate. “Not everybody can be a vigilante in a country that is already skewed when it comes to race relations. We don’t need people, particularly in this highly partisan, highly polarized environment, to have additional means to be able to further discriminate against vulnerable populations.”

In March, Citizen added features that have become staples of any standard social media platform: activity notifications, private messaging, the ability to add friends. Around the same time, Citizen reintroduced a feature that allows users to create their own incident alerts instead of waiting for the incident to show up after it’s been broadcast on a scanner and added to the app by Citizen’s employees.

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