Members of the Los Angeles Police Department reevaluated their relationship with the crime-fighting app Citizen after it placed a $30,000 bounty on the wrong person’s head during a wildfire last year, and said their section of the LAPD would no longer work with the app, according to internal LAPD emails obtained by Motherboard.
The news signals some of the fallout from the May 2021 bounty incident, which Citizen CEO Andrew Frame directly oversaw and led. The new emails also describe how Citizen has been providing weekly updates to the LAPD on incidents in the city, signalling a closer working relationship than previously understood.
“After our last meeting, we felt that his app/company could potentially benefit LAPD on a larger scale. Specifically, we could use Citizen as a resource to rapidly distribute info (Dispositions, updates, alerts, etc.) from LAPD as a Department,” OIC Sergeant II Scott Alpert from the LAPD’s Community Relations Office official wrote to colleagues on May 2nd, around two weeks before the bounty incident.
Do you work at Citizen? Do you know anything else about the company? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, or email email@example.com.
But later that month, during a wildfire near the Palisades neighbourhood of Los Angeles, Citizen did a several-hour long livestream in which it broadcasted the name and photograph of who they suspected was the arsonist on the app’s pseudo-news channel feature called OnAir. Frame, in Slack messages to employees, told the OnAir broadcasters to offer a $10,000 bounty for information that led to the arrest of this suspect. Frame later upped the prize pool to $30,000. “FIND THIS FUCK,” Frame wrote in Slack to employees previously obtained by Motherboard.
Citizen sent push alerts to over 860,000 users in Los Angeles about the incident, and Citizen employees told their viewers to hunt out this person. “We need the scent of his clothing,” Prince Mapp, at the time Citizen’s head of community, said during the broadcast.
Except it was the wrong guy. The LAPD later arrested another man suspected of starting the wildfire.
On May 21, several days after the misguided manhunt, Sergeant II Hector Guzman, a member of the LAPD Public Communications Group, emailed colleagues with a link to some of the coverage around the incident.
“I know the meeting with West LA regarding Citizen was rescheduled (TBD), but here’s a recent article you might want to look at in advance of the meeting, which again highlights some of the serious concerns with Citizen, and the user actions they promote and condone,” Guzman wrote. Motherboard obtained the LAPD emails through a public records request.
Lieutenant Raul Jovel from the LAPD’s Media Relations Division replied “given what is going on with this App, we will not be working with them from our shop.”
Guzman then replied “Copy. I concur.”
Citizen had been providing LAPD with weekly reports of incidents that the app had collected, according to the emails. Incidents are events that Citizen has pushed to its app, often based on workers listening to police radio chatter and transcribing their contents.
In one email, Andrew Karn, who works on strategic partnerships at Citizen and used to work for law enforcement contracting giant Axon, sent the LAPD information about the previous week’s incidents. He flagged two incidents that involved reported missing persons. He asked if these were ongoing, and if Citizen could “help re-notify,” presumably meaning sending a push notification to Los Angeles residents about the missing persons.
Alpert from the LAPD’s Community Relations Office in his pitch to LAPD colleagues said that when the LAPD receives the list, it looks through them for examples that “may cause unnecessary panic in the WLA [West Los Angeles] community.”
“We then send the list back to him with the disposition. He has his team send those dispositions to the community members that were on the alert threads for those calls, which hopefully calms them down,” Alpert added. The plan for the LAPD to use Citizen to further distribute information “would of course benefit us during major events or incidents of greater scale. It would potentially keep residents out of the unsafe areas or alert them when it is safe to come back into their residence or businesses, among many other things,” Alpert continued.
But it appears other members of the LAPD were less keen to work with Citizen.
“It’s come up before. Always turned down for several reasons,” Guzman wrote in another email.
The LAPD did not respond to a request for comment. A Citizen spokesperson told Motherboard in an email that “Citizen is a new product category and we are continuously updating our policy based on real world operational experiences. As we do with law enforcement and fire departments across the country, Citizen continues to engage with the LAPD's public information officers to verify the details of certain high profile incidents. Our mission is to protect our users, and that includes protection of their private data. The only information the LAPD has access to is what's on the public Citizen app. Citizen is a transparency tool and communities and police all have access to the same public data.”
“Now we see how they can be hurtful or helpful,” Alpert wrote in another email, referring to Citizen.
Update: This piece has been updated to include a statement from Citizen.