As wildfires raged through Southern California last weekend, an app called Citizen offered an unorthodox bounty over livestream and in push alerts to local residents: “hunt down” the alleged arsonist, and we’ll give you $30,000 cash.
In the hours that followed, it became clear the app was mistaken. The man pictured had no connection to the fires, and once he was located by law enforcement, he was quickly released for lack of evidence.
“We are actively working to improve our internal processes to ensure this does not occur again,” the company said in a statement after the release. “This was a mistake we are taking very seriously.”
But according to internal communications obtained by The Verge, the bounty was personally mandated by Citizen founder and CEO Andrew Frame, who saw it as an opportunity to exercise the app’s policing powers and even offered to fund it with his own money.
On Saturday afternoon, before the livestream was broadcast, Frame wrote in a company Slack thread that he would pay a $10,000 reward personally to catch an arsonist still in the area “as a test.”
“Let’s find this guy, activate safety network completely,” Frame wrote, according to screenshots of internal Slack messages obtained by The Verge. “This is a great transition of Citizen back to active safety. We are not a news company. We are safety and we make this sort of heinous crime impossible to escape from. That needs to be our mindset.” The bounty was later raised to $30,000.
First released under the name Vigilante in 2016, Citizen had a rocky rollout. The app was pulled from Apple’s App Store over concerns that it encouraged users to directly take on crime themselves. It was relaunched as Citizen in 2017, providing information transcribed from police and fire dispatch audio. Users also have the option to livestream incidents on the app with guidance to “never approach a crime scene, interfere with an incident, or get in the way of police.”
The app now provides alerts about crime in more than 30 cities. Citizen’s website boasts that it has sent more than 4 billion alerts and has more than 7 million users. Critics have said the app creates false perceptions about the level of danger to its users and allows users to spread racism in chat replies. More recently, the company raised alarm for operating an SUV labeled as “private patrol” in downtown Los Angeles, although company representatives insist the vehicle is not engaged in security work.
The Saturday broadcast came through Citizen’s recently launched OnAir feature, which is intended as a means to broadcast public safety notices. It’s only the 16th time the feature has been activated, although it’s the first time a cash bounty has been put forward so aggressively.
OnAir has “strict validation protocols to limit the spread of misinformation,” a Citizen spokesperson said in a statement. “In the 15 instances it has been used before, those protocols were followed, unfortunately, in this instance, on-the-ground tips were used in place of the proper verification with public safety agencies.”
“We deeply regret our mistake and are working to improve our internal processes to prevent this from happening again,” the spokesperson continued. They did not address why the service chose to offer a bounty for the suspect in the case specifically.
Frame may have had a personal stake in the fire; property records indicate he is the current owner of a Bel Air mansion within 10 miles of the blaze, with little development in between. In the days following the alert, the fire has grown to 1,158 acres and is still expanding.
A Citizen spokesperson denied any personal motivation and said Frame’s current residence was not threatened by the fire.
The Palisades Fire was set by an arsonist in a steep canyon west of Los Angeles just after 10PM on May 14th, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. The county ordered evacuations of the surrounding area the following evening.
It is not clear where Citizen first obtained information indicating an arsonist was responsible for the fire. On Saturday, Los Angeles Police Sgt. Jay Balgemino told the Pacific Palisades Residents Association that police were searching for an arson suspect. “It appears as though a homeless man living in our hillsides with a criminal past has planned out a wild rampage,” read a post on the association’s Facebook page just after 6PM. “We cannot take the risk of allowing more homeless in a neighborhood with such a fragile environmental landscape.” The association took the post down after an inquiry from Recode.
However Frame first saw the false identification, the Slack messages show he saw it as an “opportunity” for Citizen to fulfill its “true mission.”
“Those people all live there and their homes/families are being threatened,” he wrote in Slack. “There is a huge cohort of engaged users who want to help.”
Around 10PM that day, Citizen broadcast a livestream where it displayed a photo of the man and offered the reward for his capture, according to journalist Cerise Castle, who reported the event on Twitter. The hosts did not elaborate on the source of the information but encouraged users to “hunt this guy down.” Twitter users identified one of the hosts as Prince Mapp, Citizen’s head of community and culture, although Citizen declined to confirm the identities of the hosts.
“We know the guy is out there,” said one host, according to Castle. “We need our users to get out there and bring this guy to justice.”
But the man they identified was detained a short time later and released, sheriff’s Lt. Jim Braden told Kate Cagle, a reporter for Spectrum News. Braden said the deputies did not have evidence to charge the man with a crime. He called the actions by Citizen potentially “disastrous” and would only lead to someone getting hurt.
Citizen promoted the livestream on its Twitter account but later deleted the tweet. On Sunday morning, deputies arrested a different man on suspicion of arson.
And while Citizen said it plans to get it right next time, Frame suggested in a Slack message that it won’t be the last time Citizen offers a cash reward. “We need to build this into the product and we will,” he wrote.