App Gives Residents Real-Time Crime and Emergency Info

The free app, which was once banned as the Vigilante app by the Apple App Store, now calls a former foe its spokesman and boasts citizen heroics as evidence of its viability.

by Jim McKay / March 15, 2019

The Citizen app made headlines last year when a good Samaritan in New York noticed a 4-year-old boy alone and crying on the J Train and checked the app to find that the boy was lost. Earlier in the year, a 103-year-old man was reunited with loved ones after a couple realized he matched the description of a missing person described on the app.

There are other success stories as well for the free mobile public safety network that provides real-time information to users in Baltimore, New York, San Francisco and — since Tuesday — Los Angeles.

So far, about 600,000 users have gone to the App Store and granted permission to Citizen to know their whereabouts so they can receive the real-time alerts. The alerts can be about car accidents, fires or murders, such as the one Wednesday night in New York City in which Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali, was shot to death outside his home on Staten Island.

The Citizen app first sent out an alert of an unconfirmed report of shots fired at 15 Hilltop Terrace at 9:20 p.m. The alert said one unconfirmed report involved a shooting and another that the man was struck by a car. Citizen made about 15 updates to the story in the minutes afterward, correcting the address and notifying citizens that police were looking for a blue pickup.

The information comes from publicly available sources, including radio traffic from first responders’ frequencies, and open computer aided dispatch data from the Baltimore Police Department and the California Highway Patrol.

“It’s an example of technology helping get the right information to the right people at the right time,” said J. Peter Donald, head of policy and communications for Citizen. Donald is the former assistant commissioner for communications and public information for the New York Police Department.

Ironically, he was part of the charge to have the app, then called Vigilante, banned from the App Store. Last spring the app was rebranded, and Donald came aboard. Donald said he spent a “great deal of time” studying the app and none of his original concerns were realized. “We are really clear about what we know and what we don’t know.”

Police agency views of the app may have softened as well since it was called Vigilante.

A Baltimore Police Department spokesperson said in an email: “Accurate and timely information is a powerful tool for members of the community. The Baltimore Police Department launched a mobile app in 2017. We will continue to work with any organization or member of the community to help disseminate information.”

A spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department said the department is still reviewing the app.

Donald cited the two examples above and others about why the app is useful to the public. “For the law student who got a real-time notification at 4 a.m. in the morning about a fire in his building, it allows him to wake up his girlfriend and his best friend who’s asleep on the couch,” he said of a real incident that happened recently.

“As they are going down the stairs, the firefighters are going up the stairs to fight the fire above his apartment. The smoke alarms and fire alarms didn’t work,” he said.

“If there’s a gunman in your building or a fire in your building or a robbery at the pharmacy across the street, you need to know about that right now, not in five minutes or 10 minutes,” Donald said.

The app is also being used by the New York City Fire Department as an intelligence tool. The department reportedly views the 100,000 or so live videos on the platform to monitor incidents.

But for Donald, it goes back to that 4-year-old who was saved because of information on the app. “That case to me is particularly powerful.”

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