Information is power, they say. So the makers of a new phone app, “Vigilante,” believe that letting people know when any nearby crime in progress is being reported to the police, thereby enabling users to either avoid or approach the area, is empowering. Safety enhancing. Revolutionary. #CrimeNoMore
The cops in New York City, where Vigilante was unveiled last week, don’t see it that way. And neither did Apple, which removed the Vigilante app from its store shortly after its launch last week. But entrepreneur Andrew Frame, who created Vigilante, sees the app as a way to use transparency both to fight crime and improve police-community relations. He is working to restore the app on Apple phones, to release it soon on Android phones, and to expand it beyond New York, where it debuted after a closed test with 1,000 users in Brooklyn.
The app not only maps where new crime is being reported, but allows users to live stream an event if they so choose or report an incident. Vigilante cautions people not to get involved, to stay safe and allow the police to handle the situation. But even in the small test in Brooklyn, Frame wrote on Facebook last week, “people have been saved by this app under somewhat extraordinary circumstances.” In a public manifesto released on Medium, Frame wrote, “Transparency is the single most powerful tool in the fight against crime and injustice, and we believe it will rebuild cooperation towards a shared vision.” In addition to crime, users presumably could record police actions at a scene, as civilians did with the South Carolina police shooting of Walter Scott and the fatal New York police arrest of Eric Garner.
“Crimes in progress should be handled by the NYPD and not a vigilante with a cell phone,” the New York police said in a terse e-mail. The police would not answer any questions about whether they were involved in getting the app removed by Apple, whether they would seek to keep it from being revived, and how exactly Vigilante is getting their information about 911 calls in the first place.
It would appear that Vigilante is mainly listening to police scanner traffic, then creating short summaries of the event as dispatched and pinpointing the location on a map. Frame told the New York Post that “we are not hearing the victims’ 911 calls. There are police scanners involved and we have a network of antennas across the boroughs.” New York police and fire dispatch frequencies are not encrypted and can be heard by anyone with a scanner, though every reporter who’s ever spent much time listening to a scanner knows that erroneous information often leaks into the chatter between dispatchers and officers or firefighters, and it’s not intended for public consumption. But the initial dispatch usually has the location and nature of the call mostly right.
Vigilante’s video explaining how it works, below, indicates that concerned citizens can respond and scare off the bad guy, maybe getting some video as well. It’s the kind of aggressive involvement that police departments tend to discourage, but watch for yourself:
“Police can’t be everywhere at once,” Frame’s manifesto noted, particularly in a city of eight million, “and by the time an officer arrives on the scene, the situation is often over. With Vigilante, vital information is unlocked and everyone can do their part.”
That “part” has long been defined as witness or bystander. “If people intervene and police officers arrive at the scene,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, “then they can mistake well-meaning vigilantes for perpetrators, and a horrible tragedy can ensue. If vigilantes and posses were answers to the law enforcement problem in the U.S., we wouldn’t have discarded them in the 19th century.”
Frame founded a New York-based startup, Sp0n, to create Vigilante, both the software and the staff to digest the information and post it or send push notifications. He said in a press release he was backed by technology venture investors and celebrities such as Deepak Chopra and Russell Simmons have issued endorsements. The app comes with ample liability waivers should one of its users become injured while responding to a Vigilante-reported incident. Some have noted that allowing people to track police movement on an app might enable criminals to commit crime in unprotected areas, and the ability to report an incident could be abused for sinister purposes.
“We believe the 911 system information should be open,” Frame told Gizmodo. “If a person needs help and hundreds of people are nearby, why shouldn’t they know?” On Facebook, he wrote, “we are exploring the relationship between transparency and justice. Can we use transparency to reduce crime?…What behavioral changes might this create? Are they good for the world? Can we use transparency to repair the relationships between community and police? We are hoping a long-term behavioral change will deter criminal behavior.”
Frame declined an interview with The Post. One question I had was, why the name? “Vigilante” seems to imply more than transparency, more like a call to action. Sudden, untrained citizen action, with the chaos and tangential damage that can ensue.
Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, said, “That branding is really counterproductive. It suggests citizen intervention, and you’re thinking about Trayvon Martin. It’s pretty disturbing.”
But “the functionality of the app,” La Vigne said, “encouraging the public they could and should think about having a role in transparency, could be beneficial.” She noted that when people decide to turn on their cameras, and where they are located when they film, all play into the consideration of a citizen video’s credibility in the context of an entire incident, such as a police shooting. But for episodes such as the North Charleston, S.C., police killing of Scott, “would we have even heard of it?” without citizen video, La Vigne asked.
John DeCarlo, a former police chief in Connecticut and now a professor at the University of New Haven, said having large numbers of citizens rush to a crime scene is “problematic. I think the intent of the people is to record police officers potentially hitting someone, when they’re actually heading into what could be a dangerous situation.”
But DeCarlo endorsed the idea of greater transparency as a way to reduce crime, saying that both surveillance and body-worn cameras have increased the civility of those being filmed on either side of a police encounter. In addition, making crime information available more rapidly to citizens, which DeCarlo did in Branford, Conn., a suburb of New Haven, “brought crime way down. People knew what was going on, where it was going on. We actually started getting more calls, when people were more aware. It’s very important that you don’t leave people in fear. Knowing what’s happening is a mechanism to alleviate that fear. Being in a communicative partnership with the police department is a valid tool.”
Frame said on Facebook that Sp0n was being asked to bring Vigilante to Chicago and other cities by community leaders who had heard of its results in Brooklyn. We’ll see if it catches on.