I downloaded the Citizen App after a coworker told me about it. I thought it would be a saving grace: bringing to our phones real-time crime alerts in our surrounding area. I thought it would save me from being at the wrong place at the wrong time and ultimately help me and my family elude danger. Quickly but surely this decision became one of my biggest mistakes — and I’m not exaggerating when I say a big regret. I know I’m not the only one among the app’s more than 225,000 local users.
When I moved to Girard Estates in South Philly, I couldn’t have been happier with our specific block. My neighbors were all families, with children my 9-month-old daughter’s age, and it was a small street that didn’t get much foot traffic. It felt like the perfect area to raise a family. But being born and raised in Manhattan I’m not naive to the dangers of the world. I had a very realistic perception from a young age about the need to be aware of my surroundings and that, unfortunately, crime is an unavoidable aspect of society. So I thought Citizen would simply inform me of the goings-on in our neighborhood, and maybe help me discern patterns in crime to avoid being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
That was never going to be the case. An app that constantly gives crime alerts without context isn’t a neighborhood watch. It didn’t prevent anything from happening. In fact, the alerts didn’t do anything but create a black hole of anxiety. When you go from living moment to moment, to living moment to moment with every alleged shooting, mugging, and everything in between being alerted to you, how could you not become a bundle of fear?
I had the app for a little more than a year. While we’ve lived here, our car has been broken into while parked right out front, there was a mugging on the corner, and someone was murdered just blocks away, among many other crimes. And those are only the crimes Citizen alerted me to that I know happened. We also got a litany of other notifications that are unfounded or uncorroborated, because anyone can post to the app. The majority of them, happening well after I’ve tucked my daughter in bed, are far enough away that they don’t impact us or make prime-time news, but close enough to home that I have trepidation about leaving the house after dark.
Citizen’s website describes the service as “a personal safety network that empowers you to protect yourself and the people and places you care about.” The app didn’t do that for me. Instead, it forced me to hyper-focus on the negative in my own backyard. I went from curiously checking what’s happening within the community to thinking, “Oh no — yet another shooting, robbery, or police activity.” Do these alerts protect anyone? Or just make us believe that Philadelphia is an actual war zone?
I couldn’t stop checking Citizen because of the anxiety it gave me. Then I got so paranoid I had to delete it so it didn’t dictate my movements and have me living in fear. But the damage was done. Thanks to all the alerts I’d get through the nights, I went from loving our seemingly safe neighborhood to finding it not that safe. And wanting to move out of Philly because I was aware of just how much crime was really happening. We’ve been looking for houses in New Jersey, because we feel it’s not safe to raise a family here.
“Do these alerts protect anyone? Or just make us believe that Philadelphia is an actual war zone?”
But the problem is, wasn’t there substantial crime in the city before I downloaded the app? We just didn’t have an alert for every incident and then some, claiming the exact distance away and often sharing video footage. Does a service like Citizen change our perceptions of crime without truly teaching us the reality of it? Does it make us safer, or just make us privy to the fact that nowhere is totally safe? No matter what part of the city, crime happens in every zip code.
For now, I’ve deleted the app, for peace of mind. It was just too much. And it might move my family out of Philly.
Chelsie DeSouza is a freelance writer and creator of Matchstick Moms, a platform supporting parents. She’s forever a New Yorker but currently living in Philadelphia. She’s been published in HuffPost, Blavity, and HelloGiggles and is mother to a 3-year-old girl, which is by far her favorite title.
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