The Citizen App’s Pilot Program Nods to the Future of On-Demand Policing

The community crime app raised hackles when it sent a patrol vehicle out into the streets of L.A.

Last month, questions swirled as controversial community safety app Citizen expanded into the physical realm, testing out a branded car in Los Angeles in conjunction with a local private security company it contracted with. Citizen—an app that uses GPS to alert users to crimes that have happened nearby—confirmed it had engaged in a “small” trial. Still, the move has raised concerns about privatized security services patrolling the streets and becoming ersatz, on-demand law enforcement, especially in the wake of an incident in which inaccurate information promoted by the app led to a fevered manhunt for an innocent person.

In late May, images of the all-black, Citizen-branded patrol vehicle began to circulate on Twitter after it was spotted in both Highland Park and DTLA. A spokesperson for Citizen that a pilot program had occurred and that the company had contracted with Los Angeles Professional Security, but didn’t explain what the trial was meant to accomplish. “We ran a small 30-day trial of a personal security service from LAPS that involved one vehicle in Los Angeles,” the spokesperson said. “The test is now complete and we have no ongoing relationship with that company. We have no plans to launch our own private security force.”

However, leaked emails obtained by Motherboard indicate Citizen did intend to start a “security response” program. Motherboard also found that in Los Angeles, Citizen has contracted with both LAPS and another well-known security contractor called Securitas. Currently, neither Citizen’s free neighborhood alert service nor its $19.99-a-month subscription service offers private security presence, but Motherboard reports that emails were sent to the Los Angeles Police Department pitching their program as a way to help cover property crimes in the city.

In a subsequent article about Citizen’s potential ambitions in the security realm, Motherboard pointed to an 18-minute video uploaded to YouTube on April 5 in which LAPS CEO James Caspari expresses a desire for the company to be able to make arrests and transport detained people to jail. Currently, private security can detain people who trespass on property they’re contracted to protect, but must contact police to make arrests and transport suspects. Private security, as Caspari himself notes in the video, has “zero authority” in public spaces. The LAPS video also shows Caspari saying the company is ready to “respond in force” to “remove any negative element” clients feel threatened by.

The LAPD’s Media Relations Division could neither confirm nor deny that Citizen reached out to the police force, but said the department does not “have a contract or use the Citizen App for our centralized communication.”

“We work with private security often responding and determining if a crime was committed and then accepting a private persons arrest,” a representative of the department said in an email to Los Angeles.

The representative added that LAPD has a longstanding practice of working with private security, and there have not been issues with private security contractors identifying as or claiming to be police.

The app has, however, sought to enlist its “large cohort of engaged users” to help fight crime. Earlier last month, as the Palisades fire burned in the Topanga Canyon area, Citizen sent a notification to its users offering at a $30,000 reward for information that led to the rest of a person the app identified as “the arson suspect.” Tips poured in and the man who appeared in a photo broadcast by the Citizen app was detained, but was promptly released when it became clear he had nothing to do with the crime. According to the Verge, Citizen CEO Andrew Frame issued the order for a reward “as a test,” putting up $10,000 of his own money before the offered reward’s value was raised. The company has issued a statement saying it made a “mistake.”

“We absolutely do not believe in putting law enforcement in the hands of the public,” Citizen said in a statement to the New York Times. But the app does encourage users to document crimes as they’re perceived to be unfolding; when it was initially released in 2016, it was called Vigilante.

Both the Palisades fire incident and the patrol car pilot program come during heated discussions around public safety, criminal justice, and police funding. The fight over police budgets in particularly has many worried that private security could see a boost, according to Stuart Schrader, a scholar researching policing and author of Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. He says that that given the current situation nationally, an expansion of privatized policing was going to happen anyway—and Citizen’s pilot program proves that.

“Defunding [of the police] hasn’t really happened at scale, and this is going on nevertheless,” Schrader said. “The argument behind defunding has always been that it should cover private and public forms of policing and state violence.”

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