When Citizen — a crime-tracking app previously known as “Vigilante” — came to Philly in 2019, Hans Menos, then-head of the Policy Advisory Commission, said: “One of the things that concerns me about these citizen-involved apps or platforms is they have a high potential for misuse. But, in general, I like the idea that people can be more aware of what’s going on in their neighborhood.”
The friction Menos identified — over whether apps like Citizen and Nextdoor, another app that offers forums for neighborhood crime discussions, are helpful to communities or harmful — continues today.
Over the summer, Citizen was widely criticized by law enforcement officials and former employees for its attempts to brand out in Los Angeles, including offering a $30,000 reward for the capture of a man incorrectly identified as responsible for starting a brushfire and testing a private security force. But these apps have supporters, including a former civil rights leader who compares their utility for public safety to street lights.
As the debate continues, The Inquirer turned to two Philadelphians to discuss: Do crime-tracking apps like Citizen help or harm communities?
Help: Information is power.
By Quinn O’Callaghan
If you have never heard the pops of small-gauge gunfire echoing out from somewhere in your neighborhood, then I suppose you might not understand the utility of the Citizen app. Maybe you’ve never scrambled inside when you heard it. Perhaps you’ve never been in a school building when the front desk person orders a lockdown based on credible information from the app.
I have. And because of this, I know that there is something to be said for crime-tracking applications.
There is utility in knowing where crime is happening, especially in neighborhoods where shooters peel around the corner at high speeds and sometimes loop back around; it is important to know where a shooting is happening in case you have a child or loved one on the street, or, much less gravely, if you have a car on the block that you think might have been shot (I did, and it had been).
To those of you in Queen Village or other well-off Philly neighborhoods who might be doubting these realities, I promise you: there are few better ways to stay on your toes in Philadelphia, with its record-breaking homicide rate and omnipresent specter of violent crime.
Most arguments against the ascent of apps like Citizen center around the idea that it serves only to drum up paranoia in better-off neighborhoods, which is a fair point — it certainly does. One needs only to see a “SHOTS FIRED” notification after a car backfires to understand that. But that in no way outweighs the utility of people in high-crime neighborhoods having access to real-time crime information
Police information is not readily accessed without a scanner; activity notes are not immediately released and often are only packaged in the form of a newsletter the next day. The Philadelphia Police Crime Map, while a helpful tool for organizing and categorizing information, is likewise slow. Regardless of where you stand on the genesis of violent crime in Philadelphia, it has to be said that accessing vital information about it, without apps like Citizen and Nextdoor, is cumbersome.
I have no desire to defend these apps as businesses. Citizen, in particular, is ascending in the field of privatized policing and surveillance and needs to be monitored closely by consumers. But there is merit in the idea that we should be using our devices to give each other a heads-up about what’s going on in our neighborhoods.
Even if Citizen isn’t the app of the future in this regard, why not have every city develop one that is moderated in real time by 911 dispatchers?
The question is not whether these companies are evil. The question is whether you believe that people’s right to access information outweighs the relative intrusion that they cause — or in this case, outweighs the nuisance of your neighbor believing that organized crime syndicates, not raccoons, are knocking over their garbage cans. I think it does.
Harm: The potential for vigilante justice, mental health crisis is too great.
By Iresha Picot
As a mental health professional and as a Black woman living in a city that is home to hundreds of thousands of people of color, I do not support crime-tracking apps. Here’s why.
From my professional perspective, crime-tracking apps can be completely devastating to one’s mental health.
This pandemic has pushed many of us to engage in even more screen time and has created a habit of mindlessly swiping. Our addiction to devices has created a culture of instant gratification. While we think that we are seeking pleasure from screen time, it’s actually making us depressed. Studies have linked the use of constant swiping on our phones and tablets to anxiety, poor sleep quality, inattention, and depression.
An application that is alerting people to crime in their neighborhoods in real time will only make our brains more hyperaroused, and will only make us more dependent on and glued to our phones. Every time an app like Citizen or Nextdoor pings with an alert about a shooting or a lost dog or something else, we feel compelled to open the app, and there’s one more set of notifications we’re compulsively checking our phones for.
The problem: the body becomes numb to this feeling over time. As a result, it seeks similar experiences of a higher intensity to make up for it.
What this means is that people could become more and more reliant on reporting crimes using these apps and more and more likely to seek out information to fill this rush. This problematic cycle can further send people into despair and cause mental health issues. Additionally, this causes me concern because too much of anything affects our ability to register and process emotions. A crime-tracking app can weaken our emotional judgment and add to our desensitization around violent content.
From my personal perspective as a Black woman living in Southwest Philly, I worry about crime-tracking apps like Citizen creating vigilantes, people who decide to take “justice” into their own hands.
Crime-tracking apps promote a culture of surveillance, mutual suspicion, and a tendency toward reporting nonwhite and homeless people who don’t seem to “belong” in a given neighborhood.
As we have seen in the murder cases of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, vigilantes took it upon themselves to murder young Black men under the guise of self-defense, aligning with Citizen’s declaration that it “empowers you to protect yourself” — and raising questions around racial profiling and citizen policing. Crime-tracking apps can exploit the fears of their users and help perpetuate narratives about rising crime that are either false or that misrepresent a reality that is far more nuanced than what an alert on a phone can capture.
Until we can offer more people-centered solutions on mental health and safety, I give crime-tracking apps a no, thank you.
Iresha Picot is a licensed behavior specialist and therapist, doula, and community activist. A Philly transplant by way of Virginia, Iresha is the coeditor of the book “The Color of Hope: People of Color Mental Health Narratives” and has written articles for Research in the Teaching of English, Elephant Journal, Aunt Chloe’s Journal, Specter Magazine, For Harriet, and has been featured in NPR, Bicycle Magazine, and PBS American Portraits.