“Police Searching For Armed Robbery Suspect,” the push notification yelled as I sat at a traffic light recently. Coincidentally, the alert claimed this chaotic event was unfolding right at the intersection where I happened to be. I look to the left, nothing. I look to the right, zilch. I see no activity. Everything is ordinary and calm. No police. No armed robbery suspect. No search, no hunt. If we had tumbleweed in Brooklyn, there would have been tumbleweed at this intersection.
Then it happened again.
I’m in line to grab a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts when suddenly I see four cop cars swarm the parking lot like gangbusters. Turns out some teenagers were squabbling and one of them ran into the Dunkin’ Donuts bathroom to hide. Everyone disperses. A few minutes later, I look at my phone. The Citizen app says, “Report of Attempted Robbery” at the Dunkin’ Donuts.
There was no robbery, attempted or otherwise. I knew this, because I was literally right there, just like I was at the intersection the other night. But for anyone else sitting on their couch with their phone buzzing every five minutes announcing another crime in progress, it might feel like it’s time to lock yourself inside your apartment and never come out.
This is my problem with the Citizen app.
This app first appeared with a distinctly less chill name: Vigilante. It showed where crimes were happening in real time, and given the name, I suppose the idea was to encourage users to try to stop these crimes as they were happening. Unsurprisingly, the app was taken down shortly after its launch due to safety concerns. The Citizen app appeared a short time later, designed by the same folks, billed as a “crime avoidance” tool for metro areas, helping people stay safe by providing instant crime and safety alerts.
But does Citizen really keep us safe? Or does it just scare the hypervigilant shit out of us?
I am a member of the New York City Council. I represent about 150,000 people across four neighborhoods in the borough of Brooklyn, where I grew up. Crime is now at historic lows in the city, and in my district — but because residents are constantly being bombarded with push notifications of crime, they believe the city is going to hell in a handbasket. Then it snowballs. They start believing local law enforcement isn’t doing its job, or that their neighborhood is circling the drain and losing value.
Not only is this categorically false, it’s distracting people from very real public safety issues — like reckless driving or rising opioid use — that don’t show up on the app.
In my capacity as a council member, I’m focused on demystifying local government, pulling back the curtain and putting the power back where it belongs — in the hands of the people. I recognize information, knowledge, and awareness is power. I always want my constituents to have the information and tools they need to make informed decisions. But it is just as important for that information to be credible and accurate. Apps like Citizen completely lack that credibility, because they merely transcribe the content of unverified 911 calls.
To be clear, Citizen really can be a useful service when the stakes are high and information needs to move fast — in the case of a search for a missing or vulnerable person, for example. But seriously: If I were to call 911 and say that four albino tigers were currently mauling the editorial staff at the BuzzFeed headquarters, that’s exactly what would appear on the app. I suspect many people using Citizen don’t know this, and assume if it comes up on the app, it probably happened. Information might be power, but living in a constant state of unfounded anxiety and fear is anything but. Hypervigilance is a real thing, and it’s not healthy.
As a politician, I also understand that for better or for worse, perception is reality. You will often hear New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tout that this is the “safest big city in America” and that crime here is the lowest it has been since “reliable records have been kept.” Indeed, a recent headline in the New York Times announced “Crime in New York City Plunges to a Level Not Seen Since the 1950s.” But when you repeat these facts in the form of a mantra, aberrant crime takes center stage — and that is precisely where Citizen has a starring role.
Two things are now simultaneously true: Crime is at or near historic lows, and the average person can now be fed a stream of every single 911 call in the most populous city in the United States. We are in a new era of hyperawareness, and perception is now trumping reality in a powerful new way.
It goes beyond local crime, of course. Following the news today is less about being informed or challenged as it is reinforcing what you already believe to be true. The internet is a glorious rabbit hole where you can find an article to corroborate just about any theory or thought that pops into your head — and thanks to social media, the most extreme and shocking things consistently rise to the top.
This has a very real influence in how we conduct ourselves — how we vote, how we raise our families, how we treat each other. We’re still learning how to balance the extraordinary access to information that we have with our duty and responsibility to verify that information before we act on it.
The safety and security of my constituents will always be my number one priority. And I don’t want my constituents to ever be in the dark about anything. If a serious crime happens in my district, I want them to know. I need them to be aware. I also don’t want them to be afraid for no reason. There’s enough fear and anxiety in this world as it is.
Justin Brannan is a member of the New York City Council, representing District 43 in southwest Brooklyn.