Are neighborhood watch apps making us safer?

Written By: Hanna Kozlowska October 29, 2019

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These days, a smartphone of a resident of San Francisco or New York might buzz with a notification of a new Instagram post from a friend or a news update about a jump in the stock market. But in between those, a more ominous alert can catch their attention: “1.5 miles away, a woman was shot in her face,” or “0.5 miles away, fire reported on rooftop.”

This type of alert could come from one of three apps—Citizen, Neighbors, and Nextdoor—which are part of an ecosystem of online tools that, over the past decade, have become the new neighborhood watch. From their mobile phones, users are instantaneously able to find out about their neighbors’ fears and suspicions, track police scanners to discover any reported crime or emergency, and share footage from home security cameras.

 The internet has helped vigilantism and conspiracy theories thrive. The internet has helped vigilantism and conspiracy theories thrive, with its anonymous message boards, algorithm-enabled rabbit holes, and spaces for just about anyone to share their suspicions. The mobile web has brought it all to our fingertips, accessible at any moment, relevant to our precise location.

People have always been curious about crime, fearful for their safety, and yearned for community. But today, technology can supercharge these feelings, and sometimes helps people give into their worst inclinations. Privileged (often white) users are defining safety by excluding those who are already disenfranchised (usually people of color). At the same time, the platforms and devices grant tech companies and law enforcement new ways to build their networks of surveillance.

The undying appeal of a crime watch on your phone

The Citizen app helps satisfy Alex Kehr’s curiosity. Every time the 30-year-old from Los Angeles, an avid user and CEO of his own app company, hears an emergency siren, he opens the app to see what he can learn about the incident. “It’s almost like a push notification,” he said.

Narratives of crime and those tasked with fighting it have always appealed to Americans. We know this from the popularity of long-running shows like the controversial reality program Cops, or even the ripped-from-headlines Law and Order. Citizen similarly appeals to an audience’s desire for excitement, and the feeling of being “in on the action,” Sarah Esther Lageson, sociologist and professor at Rutgers University, said in an email. But the apps provide information that is more raw, and transmitted directly into your phone. It brings the practice of eavesdropping on police scanners—a domain of reporters, lawyers, and hobbyists—into the mainstream, making it easy and digestible for everyone.

Created in 2016, Citizen, which currently has more than 1 million active users, is a police scanner on steroids. Reported crimes or incidents appear as red warning dots sprinkled around a map of a user’s location: fires, assaults, shootings, or very specific events like “irate man wielding bottle,” or “teenagers fighting.” The information is sucked up from police radio and other emergency communication channels, and curated by Citizen’s team. Users who are on the scene of an incident can livestream footage, and everyone can discuss incidents in a chat box.

But its effects extend beyond the screen. Citizen likes to tout success stories, like when a user found out about a fire in his building, or when users help find missing people thanks to the app. Meanwhile, several Citizen users Quartz spoke with say they avoid certain neighborhoods because of the information they got from the app.

Citizen is how Stephanie Cortinhal, 29, found out about the 2017 terrorist attack on New York City’s West Side Highway, which was close to her workplace. She followed along on the app before any local news organizations reported the incident. Unlike many people who use Citizen, she stayed away from the area. It was frustrating that the reports on the app were fragmentary, but still, she preferred to be somewhat informed.

 “Crime watch is community building in some ways—it offers a concrete reason for people to get to know their neighbors, which is increasingly difficult.” The flow of information from these apps can be near-constant, mirroring always-on information sources like cable news or Twitter. When it was available in three cities, it would send out about two million notifications a day across its users (now it’s in five locations, but the company would not disclose the volume of notifications). Nextdoor, the social network for neighborhoods, and Neighbors, the app where people share their Ring doorbell footage, also send out emergency alerts. Speed takes precedence over accuracy and verifiable context. The alerts come in with other notifications on users’ phones, allowing them to flip seamlessly between their TikTok feeds and alerts about a stabbing.

Some people join or follow local crime watches to feel safer and to be in the know. But there’s another reason for signing up. “Crime watch is community building in some ways—it offers a concrete reason for people to get to know their neighbors, which is increasingly difficult,” Lageson said. For decades, people have been turning away from community life.

And, with the internet, becoming part of a crime watch is almost effortless. “You’re able to join from your own home, and not actually engage in person, making participation easier,” Lageson added.

Neighborhood watches, as groups of people who physically patrol neighborhoods, blossomed in the 1970s and 1980s, and declined along with dropping crime, but have persisted into this decade. (George Zimmerman, the man who killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 was a member of one such watch.) With the advent of the internet came crime watches as blogs, websites, and more recently Facebook groups, or, in other countries, WhatsApp groups.

Now, the dominant neighborhood watch is no longer a physical group of people. It’s an invisible force that reports suspicious activity with a few taps on a phone. And, often, “suspicious” people don’t know they’re being watched.

Defining safety and community

Nextdoor is all about building communities—”stronger, safer, and happier” ones, according to its website. “When I grew up I knew everyone who lived around me. And today, I know quite few unfortunately,” Sarah Friar, the company’s CEO, told Quartz.

On Nextdoor, users can post about anything neighborhood-related—whether it’s a recommendation for a local babysitter, a sales ad for their old couch, or a query about swimming lessons for a Pomeranian (a Twitter account, @thebestofnextdoor, gathers the most absurd entries). Generally, the posts tend to focus more on community life, compared to Citizen or Neighbors.

Anyone downloading the app sees the bounds of their neighborhood already specified by Nextdoor itself.

Will Pollock, 51, a Nextdoor users from Atlanta, says that overall, Nextdoor enhances his life in his neighborhood. When his house was burglarized in 2015, he received many messages of support, and found out that a neighbor’s surveillance camera was able to catch an image of the perpetrator. Another Nextdoor user Quartz spoke with found their roommate’s wallet through the app.

Though Friar says that only 5% of posts on Nextdoor are in the crime and safety section (that includes posts about potholes or fallen streetlights), she notes that, in the past, a big part of what communities stood for was people keeping an eye out for one another.

I think today people are looking for that same [feeling of], ‘If we all look out for each other, overall our community’s going to be a safer, better place to live,’” Friar said. She noted that Nextdoor has helped find missing pets or elderly people with dementia. “It’s really important to have that kind of network of eyes and ears.”

While Nextdoor, Citizen, and Neighbors might make some people feel more connected with their neighborhoods by recreating closer-knit communities of the past, the apps also can perpetuate and facilitate xenophobic, racist, or classist behaviors that often came alongside that closeness.

 “’Who gets to decide what safety looks like’ and ‘who is actually being made safe, safer,’ [are] very different questions.” Nisa Ahmad, a TV producer in LA, wrote in a 2018 post on Medium that she had quit Nextdoor after her neighbors on the app called the police on another neighbor, a black man, for being “suspicious” during his morning run in the gentrifying neighborhood. When the man asked people on the app to be more aware of the neighborhood’s diversity “because he should not be criminalized for jogging,” as Ahmad writes, another neighbor responded:“You can’t blame us for wanting to protect our community.”

The question “’Who gets to decide what safety looks like?’ and ‘Who is actually being made safe, safer?’ [are] very different questions,” said Larisa Mann, media studies professor at Temple University who focuses on surveillance.

(Designated users called “Neighborhood Leads” review content reported as having violated the site’s guidelines and vote on taking it down.)

Calling the police on a person of color results too often in unwarranted aggression from law enforcement, leading to incidents of brutality and killings. And posts on neighborhood apps, like the one Ahmad mentions, could potentially lead to similar escalation.

Crime in many US areas is at historic lows, but the barrage of notifications on these apps can create the sense that crime is increasing. (On Citizen, this is especially acute, since the app sucks up thousands of alerts from emergency scanners, creating a map of red dots of supposed danger. “Drunk Patient Hit EMT in Face,” “Large Raccoon Preventing Entry to Home” were some of those dots on my phone one recent week. After facing criticism over the issue, Citizen has redesigned its app so that the red dots and notifications are fewer and more relevant.)

Indeed, critics have claimed these apps breed a kind of paranoia.

Ed Murray, the former mayor of Seattle, spoke with blogger Erica Barnett in 2016 about Nextdoor. “Why, suddenly, when we’re having crime stats going down in the city overall, are we seeing a huge uptick in people absolutely freaked out about crime? There are some indications that the complaints about crime may be more related to social media sites than the neighborhoods that actually have crime,” he said. The areas where users were most active, according to Murray? Safe, affluent, and majority white.

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