Citizen, a popular app that tracks crimes in cities, offered a $30,000 reward earlier this month for information on a man they said was an arson suspect in a Los Angeles wildfire.
Los Angeles law enforcement did briefly detain and question the man, but released him and later charged a different suspect. Citizen took down the post and apologized for the accusation — but only after broadcasting his photo to a reported 861,000 viewers.
Citizen wants to be the app that keeps city-dwellers safe by alerting them to dangerous crimes or incidents near them. It sends fire, car accident, burglary and covid-19 alerts to its more than 7 million users in 30 cities including New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston. For each incident, it shows updates the company gets from 911 and other sources, as well as live videos and comments from users at the scenes of incidents.
But its latest attempts to expand with live broadcasts, rewards for information, and on-demand private security are raising concerns. The company launched OnAir, its own branded live broadcasts about breaking news events featuring paid hosts, last month. In a stream last Saturday about the wildfire burning near the Pacific Palisades neighborhood in Los Angeles, a host identified and showed a photo of a suspect, which Citizen had not officially confirmed with Los Angeles law enforcement. The stream was first reported by Los Angeles-based reporter Cerise Castle who live tweeted it.
Citizen spokesperson Jennifer Burner Barden acknowledged the error, saying the company’s broadcasts are “designed to be used in limited circumstances when an event puts a large number of people in imminent danger, and it is built on strict validation protocols to limit the spread of misinformation and ensure safety.” OnAir has been successfully used 15 times before, the company said. This time, however, Citizen employees acted on a tip from two law enforcement officers without officially confirming it, she said.
“We deeply regret our mistake and are working to improve our internal processes to prevent this from happening again,” she said in a statement.
Founded in 2016 by company Sp0n as “Vigilante,” the app let people report crimes and encouraged “everybody to do their part.” It was quickly booted from the Apple App Store over safety concerns. It later rebranded and relaunched back on the App Store as Citizen and focused more on sharing early crime and fire reports from official sources and 911 calls than getting users involved in them.
The company has spent the past four years trying to distance itself from its controversial beginnings. In 2020, it relaunched the feature that let users report crimes themselves, starting a live video feed inside the app that can be seen by anyone.
The recent wildfire broadcast has heightened public scrutiny.
During last Saturday’s broadcast, a Citizen host said, “We know the guy is out there. We need our users to get out there and bring this guy to justice,” according to Castle.
Citizen did not coordinate with the Los Angeles Fire Department, LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey said. He confirmed that law enforcement later arrested and charged a different person in connection with the Pacific Palisades fire.
Citizen offered the cash reward “to anyone who provides information that leads to the arrest of the arson suspect,” according to the Guardian, which reported on the false accusation earlier this week.
The app has another real-world feature in the works involving private security on demand that it is testing internally with employees using a single car in Los Angeles, the company confirmed. The service, which was earlier reported by Vice News, is designed to let people request immediate help from private security guards if they need, for example, an escort to walk home.
The Verge reported Friday that Citizen CEO Andrew Frame encouraged the botched wildfire reward and offered up his own money to fund it. Frame wants to keep offering rewards and build them into the app, The Verge reported. Citizen did not comment directly on the report.