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Anti-crime phone app ‘Vigilante,’ with real-time alerts, relaunches as ‘Citizen’

After some push back, the phone app formerly known as "Vigilante" has been rebranded as "Citizen." (Video: Facebook/CitizenApp)

The phone app “Vigilante” created a bit of a stir when it launched in the fall in New York, providing near-instant alerts of nearby crimes and emergencies in the Big Apple. It seemed to encourage citizen intervention in crime, if only by its name if not by its lengthy “Terms of Use,” and that’s why Apple booted “Vigilante” from its app store a day after its October release.

But now the app is back, rebranded as “Citizen” and relaunched Wednesday morning, available for real-time crime notification on all iOS and Android devices. It is still only applicable in the five boroughs of New York, and still doesn’t have the official approval of the New York Police Department. Yet its backers, including former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous and entertainment mogul Russell Simmons, say that the app’s ability to quickly alert New Yorkers to nearby danger and enable users to live-stream police incidents or capture important video make the app a valuable tool both for fighting crime and monitoring police abuses.

‘Vigilante’ phone app alerts New York users to crime, but police not thrilled

“Citizen” and “Vigilante” are the brainchild of technology entrepreneur Andrew Frame, who founded the New York-based start-up Sp0n to create both the software for the app and the staffing to process and post the information. Sp0n employees monitor the unencrypted police and fire scanner frequencies in New York, listening to emergency dispatches and mapping them, along with brief descriptions of the event. Then they push alerts to people in the vicinity of the events, as well as create a searchable map of recent incidents. Users who receive alerts can either avoid the area, keeping themselves safe, or approach and observe the situation, possibly live-streaming the video through the app.

Jealous said Wednesday he was an investor in the project, but that his venture capital group Kapor Capital was looking to support projects “which make the world better for the average person.” And, Jealous said, “I’ve seen it work.” He said one of his partners was on her way home to Queens recently and got an alert about a “man with a gun at the McDonald’s.” The incident was directly ahead on her route. “She was able to turn the corner and eliminate the risk of a stray bullet,” Jealous said. In another example, Jealous said he was sitting with Frame and a New York anti-crime activist when an alert came in about a group beating occurring on the block where they were meeting. The activist sent someone to investigate, found that members of one gang were beating a man from another, and were able to forestall retaliation and further bloodshed, Jealous said.

Frame said in an interview Wednesday that “We believe that citizens have the right to be informed and the responsibility to be engaged in their own safety and the safety of their communities. Our hope is that opening up this information and encouraging greater transparency will help deter crime and injustice in all its forms.” The app harnesses the information and immediacy of 911 calls, without violating the privacy of the callers or the first responders.

“The name Vigilante distracted from our mission,” Frame said, and the introductory video with footage of citizens racing to a victim’s rescue elicited strong response. “Citizen more accurately communicates our mission,” Frame said, and the new promotional video focuses more on avoiding crime by being aware of it. “We have reinforced our focus on safety. We built this app to create safety, and any reckless or dangerous behavior will not be tolerated. Our in-app messages now more strongly communicate this, and the terms of service have also been updated to reflect this policy.”

Part of the changes to the app include that Sp0n has broadened its network, Frame said. “We have incorporated advice from, and are now in active communication with, officials from the city, representatives from the New York Police Department, and a variety of community leaders.” “Citizen” was able to respond to the Apple app store’s concerns by adhering to Apple’s requirement that “apps should not urge customers to use their devices in a way that … [risks] damage to the device or physical harm to people.” Frame said, “We have addressed this with a series of changes, clarifying throughout that the Citizen app does not permit or condone any reckless or dangerous behavior, including chasing crimes.”

Police typically discourage bystanders from intervening in critical incidents, both for their own safety and to enable trained officers to handle such situations with competence and experience. “Crimes in progress should be handled by the NYPD and not a vigilante with a cellphone,” the New York police said in an email in the fall. An unsigned email Tuesday from the police public information unit said citizens interested in crime data should consult the police website, and crime victims should call 911. They did not respond to questions about whether they had reviewed the new app or whether it was any more acceptable than “Vigilante.”

Frame said Wednesday, “We have established 24/7 contact with various officials at the NYPD. The immediate concern is to have direct contact for any issues concerning safety.” He and Jealous were optimistic that police would eventually embrace the concept, and they hope to take it to other cities once it is established in New York.

Frame initially tested “Vigilante” with a group of 1,000 users in Brooklyn last year, and wrote on Facebook that “people have been saved by this app under somewhat extraordinary circumstances.” In a news release announcing the release of “Citizen,” renowned anti-violence activist Erica Ford said that in her pilot area of the project, “we helped enhance community cohesiveness and successfully had no shootings for over 539 days and no killings in our target area. Citizen helps unify our community by making us aware of our surroundings.”