It’s the digital version of listening to a police scanner — a new app based in New York is watching what our first responders are doing in the Bay Area — as well as in Baltimore, Los Angeles and New York. Another app is watching what’s going on at college campuses in California. We take a look at what it’s like to get constant alerts about the bizarre and the dangerous.
It was a frightening scene, a block from the San Francisco State campus: a woman shot, a gunman on the loose. Student Desirae Zuniga recalls everyone huddled in their dorms — was a shooter outside? “The people on my floor, everyone was really scared,” Zuniga said. “My first thought automatically went to, this gunman can possibly be on campus and we don’t have that much security.”
As if to confirm their fears, the power suddenly went out — and later, loud popping sounds erupted outside. “We all thought, the shooter’s on campus right behind our building… It was scary!” said Zuniga.
Campus police were mum. Frantic students turned to two crime-tracking apps: Wildfire and Citizen, which monitor fire and police scanners, posting alerts in real time.
“I was on my way to my car and I got an alert,” said student Kimberly Revolo. She saw on Citizen that she was near the shooting. “And I seen all the cop cars and then I was like, wow, let me take out my phone.”
She posted this video of the police action instantly on the app — a tool she says keeps her safe. “If it wasn’t for the app, I never would have known something was happening two, three blocks away from me,” Revolo said.
Both apps gave updates: the gunman had fled, the popping noises were just fireworks, and the power outage was unrelated.
“Not getting told by campus we’re okay, not okay, lockdown, not lockdown — we didn’t know anything. We put our trust in the apps,” says Zuniga.
Chloe Condon uses Citizen to help her dodge crime in her Mission District neighborhood. “Oh, six minutes ago there’s been an update with the man with a hammer…” Condon says, looking at her phone.
She loves the local culture, but not the drugs and robberies. “The Mission and I have a love-hate relationship,” she says.
As Condon walks home, the Citizen app alerts her to police activity nearby — like the man with the hammer.
“We don’t know where he is right now but we do know he was in the Bayview and headed in this direction. So keep your eye out for hammers,” Condon says.
Condon said the app saved her one day while she was shopping at Gus’s Market. “I got a text from my boyfriend that said, hey, don’t walk home right now.” Her boyfriend had seen on Citizen that there was a robber with a gun outside of the store. Condon hid inside.
“It saved me in the moment from walking literally into what could have been me getting held at gunpoint,” she said.
She downloaded Citizen on the spot. Now, she gets a barrage of notifications, from petty to dangerous to bizarre — like the one about the “lobster attack.” “A man threw a red substance at a Muni driver. I hope it wasn’t blood but it was paint…”
As she walks, emergencies appear in real life. We encountered a man passed out on the sidewalk, ignored by passersby. Condon reports it. “Hi I’m over at San Carlos and 20th… I’m not sure if he’s hurt or dead or overdosed on drugs.”
Citizen is unlike Nextdoor, where reports are based on the view of individual residents. Or Ring security cameras, where customers can share what their cameras see. Citizen gives alerts based on emergency radio communications.
“Everyone instinctively pays attention to things that might be dangerous that’s how we survived for millions of years,” says Dr. Pamela Rutledge. However, Dr. Rutledge, of the Media Psychology Research Center, says constant alerts can distort reality.
“If what we’re doing is getting alert, alert, alert, alert, then we start thinking that our area is very dangerous,” she says. “They’re helpful to people who want a better sense of control in their immediate area — but I wouldn’t advise people spend their time hanging on every word,” she says.
Kimberly Revolo says the app did make her fearful — at first. “I was getting so much anxiety looking at what was happening in my neighborhood.”
Still, she feels safer with it. “One notification on your phone could save a life,” she said.
Chloe Condon agrees. “Personally, I believe it’s better to be informed than to be blissfully unaware of what’s going on.”
San Francisco police say they remain neutral about folks using these apps — so far they haven’t caused people to interfere in police response. Citizen monitors our emergency radio communications from its base in New York City. Wildfire lets students post alerts about crime on their campus, and has a team to determine if they can be verified. One other note, now anyone can download the Ring app that lets you view posts from your neighborhood even if you don’t have the security system.
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.
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