Miami Beach Considers Using Citizen, a Controversial Crime-Reporting App

Miami Beach is a tourist mecca to where wealthy folks knowingly move and then complain about all the things that come with living in a tourist mecca. Over the past few years, residents have wigged out over the idea that people like to visit South Beach to (and this is by no means an exhaustive list) drink, do drugs, stay out until the early morning, blast loud music, and party on the sand. Some of these residents even created a vigilante crime-fighting group to patrol parts of South Beach and report "suspicious" people to the cops.

Now Miami Beach might employ a phone app that does the same thing. According to minutes from today's city commission meeting, Commissioner Michael Gongora wants the city to discuss whether its police department should use Citizen, a smartphone application that essentially creates a live map of user-reported incidents in a given city.

"Cities such as New York City, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Philadelphia have implemented this application, and I would like City Staff to look into this and see if this would be helpful in the City of Miami Beach," Gongora wrote in a pitch to the commission.

Though the app is fairly harmless compared to other crime-spotting and surveillance technology (such as face scanners, aerial drones, and license-plate readers), much has been written about Citizen this year. Users open the app to find a dark-colored map dotted with glowing red circles. Each spot represents an incident or area of danger that users are encouraged to avoid or report to the police. In a New York Times story this past March, the app's users said they continued checking Citizen out of morbid curiosity, even as it made them more paranoid about going outdoors. The Times wrote that the app — which, worryingly, used to be called Vigilante — creates a "signature ambient sense of alarm and disorder."

"Sometimes it makes me feel paranoid, and afraid knowing that there is a lot that goes on," a 22-year-old Brooklyn resident told the Times earlier this year. "It does give me some comfort knowing my surroundings, but I'm always torn between wanting to know and see everything, or to have that blind eye toward everything."

Other news agencies have also reported that the app terrifies people. In May, BuzzFeed flatly stated that "Citizen is scaring the hell out of people" in New York City and that the app was making the city feel dangerous even though now is statistically the safest time to live in New York basically ever. BuzzFeed also noted the app seemingly doesn't do anything to make anyone safer: Instead of encouraging cities or police departments to help rehabilitate opioid addicts or to investigate financial fraud claims, the app makes users worried that someone outside might hit them with a broomstick or steal their wallet, BuzzFeed reported.

In June, Bloomberg News reported that Citizen "sends alerts on fires, street brawls, and obnoxious raccoons," and even New York City Council Member Justin Brannan said the app pushes users into a "constant state of anxiety because of what you're seeing on the Citizen app, even though there's no real credibility about the posts."

Miami Beach needs no reason to feel any more paranoid than it already feels. A large subset of its residents — including some commissioners — are coldly convinced the city is a nightmarishly dangerous place to live and is becoming only scarier. Of course this is nonsense, and then-Police Chief Dan Oates last year repeatedly tried in vain to explain to commissioners that crime statistics showed (1) crime was dropping year over year and (2) this is statistically the safest time to live on the barrier island since before the '70s and '80s cocaine-crime explosion.

At one particularly tense meeting in November, Commissioners Mark Samuelian and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez reportedly said it was still an issue that their constituents didn't feel safe — despite statistics showing they're safe. At least anecdotally, it's unclear how the addition of Citizen would help matters.