A few weeks ago as I was walking into my off-campus apartment in Manayunk, I received a text message from my friend asking if I was home. Naturally, I thought she was in the area and wanted to stop by in between classes. However, she responded and said she wanted to make sure my roommates and I were home and safe because she had gotten a notification on her Citizen app that there was a report of an armed man in the Target parking lot. 

This was my first time ever hearing about this app and I immediately downloaded it and implored my roommates to do the same. Citizen sends its users location-based safety alerts in real time, informing them when and where danger may be lurking. I loved this app and believed that it was extremely important for individuals, especially college students, to be able to have this information. 

Source Credit: Public Domain

After doing some research, I discovered that not everyone felt the same. An article that was published by Philadelphia Magazine discusses the origins of Citizen, originally named Vigilante, which had encouraged users to essentially fight crime. While Citizen has changed its MO since then and emphasizes that users should not take matters into their own hands, they still encourage users to upload videos of crime scenes near them. Philadelphia Magazine’s article also discusses how this app plays a role in racial profiling, perpetuating stereotypes of low-income neighborhoods, and increasing fear and anxiety in its users. 

The obvious faults in this app seemed to be enough for me to want to delete it off my phone altogether. From my experience, I have always felt safe on campus as well as in Manayunk. However, I wanted to interview someone who lives in the surrounding neighborhoods of Saint Joseph’s University which is notorious for annual muggings of college students. Along with living in this neighborhood, Shannon Addario—a member of SJU’s Women’s Cross Country and Track team—regularly runs in these neighborhoods with her teammates. 

“I’m a criminal justice major so a lot of my professors want us to download Citizen and make sure we’re aware of our surroundings at all times,” Addario said.

Shannon goes on to discuss how Citizen is somewhat of a “blessing and a curse” in the sense that it provides you with safety information, but it also creates an acute sense of anxiety.

Addario recalls an incident that had taken place last year, “I had left for practice and when my teammates and I had finished, our friend texted us and said that there had been a driveby shooting ten minutes before in the area where we had been running. This was in broad daylight, not even five houses away from Hagan Arena. I had missed the alert on my phone but when we got back there was red tape and cop cars everywhere,” Addario recalls. “As for the app, it alerts you if there’s a man in the parking lot of Target with a gun so you know not to go there, but in another sense, things do happen, and to be constantly alerted scares the living crap out of you.” 

Shannon and I discussed the element of racial profiling and perpetuating stereotypes that the app has been aligned with, as well. 

“You can see the crime trends in different areas, so the residents in these neighborhoods are going to be racially profiled, they’re going to be stereotyped, there’s going to be a heavy police presence,”

Many incidents on Citizen can later be reported as “unfounded,” meaning that there is no credible foundation or basis for these reports. 

“Even if you don’t click on the reports but you see that there are a lot of reports in a certain area, you’re going to think to yourself, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t go to the deli or store in that neighborhood,’ which hurts the businesses,” Addario said, “It’s a big give-and-take because you should be aware of your surroundings, but you shouldn’t have these biases of neighborhoods and the people that live there who are trying to go about their lives. Unfortunately, there are gangs and violence around them that is completely out of their control.” 

Source Credit: Public Domain

In a sense, the flaws in the Citizen app reflect the flaws of our society as a whole. The constant need to be informed and aware of what’s going on, especially when it comes to safety, is part of the human condition. However, like most apps, Citizen is meant to be used in a responsible way but not everyone does. As for college students, especially in the Philadelphia area, it’s important to use this app for its purest and most basic intention—safety. 

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