What to Know
Once booted from the app store, the former app called Vigilante has been relaunched under the name Citizen -- and it's all new
App creator Andrew Frame says the app improves transparency by sending alerts of real-time incidents and enabling live-streaming of scenes
Some critics say they're concerned false reports on the app could fuel panic or out potential witnesses who should not be named in public
A crime-fighting app that was once blasted by the NYPD and booted from the app store has returned to phones, providing live video reports from active scenes and near-instant crime and emergency alerts to help people avoid being victims.
The app, originally launched in 2016 with the name Vigilante, was relaunched in March under the name "Citizen," and its creator, Andrew Frame, says it's been downloaded about 34,000 times in the last few months.
The app sends alerts of incidents happening near you –- as soon as a call is made to 911.
“There’s a police report. The police are on the way. This is simply a new mechanism to be informed of what’s going on around you,” Frame explained.
Controversial NYC Crime-Fighting App Returns With Live Video
The app, a free download for iTunes and Android users, is currently only available in New York, but Frame said he's had inquiries "from all 50 states" about launching in other cities.
“One of the reasons that we are just in New York City is because we are watching very closely how people are using this app," Frame said in an exclusive interview with NBC 4 New York's I-Team. "So far, everybody has used it to stay safe."
When the original version of the app launched last year, it was accompanied by a promotional video that depicted a fictional situation in Brooklyn with citizens getting to the scene of an attack before police arrived.
That caught the attention of the NYPD, which told the Washington Post “crimes in progress should be handled by the NYPD and not a vigilante with a cellphone.” Soon after, Vigilante was booted from the app store.
"People had a mixed reaction to the name," Frame said. “We immediately decided to change it to something that fit the mission and the brand.”
The feedback has been "unbelievably positive" so far, he added.
"It's putting the community back in community, where people are working together and people are staying safe and creating safety through this sort of citizen network that we’ve created,” Frame said.
The NYPD has not responded to inquiries from the I-Team about Citizen, but some in law enforcement are still concerned.
“It’s great for situational awareness for you to know what’s going on around your area,” said Sal Lifrieri, a retired NYPD detective who is now a security consultant. “The critical point here is you don’t want someone who was a potential witness becoming a potential victim.”
The other feature of the app that worries Lifrieri is the ability for users to instantly stream live video from the scene of a crime or emergency.
“You don’t need more people running in, where now you have to try and figure out who is who in the crowd,” he said, citing the recent panic at Penn Station over a false shooting report as one possible example.
But others believe the video function is critical.
“With the strained relationship between police and the community, this type of transparency is needed,” entertainment mogul Russell Simmons, a backer of Citizen, tweeted shortly after its relaunch.
And whether it's fueled in part by Citizen or some other invention, Frame said the "transparency movement" will happen anyway.
“Everybody has a smart phone. Everybody is already recording these things and transparency for the most part is very good," Frame said.
Frame does acknowledge the live stream function can be dicey, as evidenced by recent incidents on Facebook Live, but said it does create transparency.
While he said nothing horrific has happened on a Citizen feed, the video is always monitored and would be stopped instantly if warranted.
“We’re at the very, very beginning of this and part of the responsibility when building new types of apps and services is to do it carefully,” Frame said. "We don’t have a crystal ball. We haven’t dealt with these situations yet. And so beginning with New York City we have to answer some of these tough questions."