Citizen CEO offered to personally fund LA arson manhunt — for the wrong person

Photo by Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Image

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.

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Comments

So, that guy is going to sue them into the ground, right?

Let’s hope so. The pros get enough wrong. Can only imagine the effect of masses of Karens playing detective.

Reminds me of when a load of redditors wrongly accused Sunil Tripathi of the Boston marathon bombing.

Sorta.

Main difference here is this guy is essentially creating a private police force. I’m sure there are rules in the books about these sorts of things dating back centuries.

We let the State do police because we can’t sue the state into the ground, that’s really it. Everyone implicitly understand law enforcement is not perfect, there will be innocent casualties, and we all shoulder that burden. But a private enterprise? LOL sue them into the ground please.

I didn’t finish the article after I got tired of the corporate bs excuse.

he’s lucky there wasn’t an amateur bounty hunter after him. Or a mob. Seriously, if there was way more money on this innocent random person’s head, people would go crazy. Heck I go nuts for a PS5 and that’s worth less.

According to the article isn’t he homeless? I really don’t think he can afford that. Maybe crowdsource it or something

Seeing the title, I was wondering why a Japanese watch company wanted to hunt down an arsonist in California

*the CEO of a Japanese watch brand

Same, although I didn’t know Citizen was Japanese.

I knew it was too good to be true, but I was hoping that was the case.

The CEO of an app company doing this makes about as much sense, as in none.

Huge bounties for anyone the app chooses on a whim with zero evidence… what could possibly go wrong!? Really blowing my mind that this company can still operate. How is this not illegal?

Because Murrica.

You say vigilantism, they say disruption of law enforcement.

Disruption of law enforcement is also known as interference with official acts and is still illegal.

Really concerning the LAPD is reportedly on board with them and their private security force. I’m guessing they’ll change their tune a little now that this and that Vice story has come out.

I wouldn’t be so sure. Moonlighting as private security is a major source of income for police officers. Furthermore, since they’re acting as private persons when they’re doing private security pesky things like the fourth amendment, the Miranda decision and other things that constrain their actions are gray areas at best.

Alleged criminals vs pretend police; one side claims they are trying to arrest a possible criminal, the other claims they are arresting a fake cop for attempted kidnapping. I wonder how fast this will devolve into public shootouts in Stand Your Ground states.

You say vigilantism, they say disruption of law enforcement.

It’s telling that the app’s original name was, indeed, Vigilante.

In this sad affair it’s amusing that they chose the name of a watch instead.

Am also on the side that hope they get sued out of existence.

Right? This is effectively paid, crowd-sourced swatting using normal citizens.

There should be criminal charges against this company, and I really hope the falsely accused dude sues them to bankruptcy.

Would love to see a venn diagram of Parler/Citizen/FoxNews users…

I thought Fox News was quickly becoming a pariah in a lot of those circles? A lot of them seem to have shifted to NewsMax.

Just by the most extreme. I imagine most still get their news from Fox but then write off anything they dislike as "liberal infiltration".

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