'Citizen' app gives 10M users 'tools to protect themselves,' CEO Andrew Frame says
What started as a budding, police-resistant app in NYC in 2016 has grown to boast 10M users nationwide
It was around 6:30 p.m. on a frigid Friday night when word of a police shooting in New York City began to permeate.
Two New York Police Department officers had been shot, along with the gunman, during a domestic violence call in Harlem on Jan. 21. One of the officers’ widows, much like many in the city, had been watching the terror unfold through her cell phone’s Citizen app.
Dominique Luzuriaga Rivera’s "nightmare," she said, began with a notification from the app, a breaking news application that notifies users in real-time when crimes or police activity are being reported nearby.
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"I saw that two police officers were shot in Harlem. My heart dropped," she recalled, at times through tears, during her husband’s funeral.
Her husband, Jason Rivera, 22, and his partner, Wilbert Mora, who were posthumously promoted to detective first-grade, were shot by a domestic violence suspect named Lashawn McNeil. Rivera died that night, while Mora succumbed to his injuries days later at a nearby hospital.
The use of the app, albeit at times in tragic instances such as the Jan. 21 shooting, highlights a system of police accessibility and information that the technology’s founder and CEO, Andrew Frame, said he had hoped to create when launching the system roughly six years ago.
"There are two things that make people afraid: Knowing exactly what's going on and not knowing what's going on," Frame told FOX Business. "I wish that we live in a crime free, total peaceful zone right now, but we don't and people need the tools to protect themselves."
Frame spoke to FOX Business from the company’s secret New York City location, where he and a pair of his colleagues sat around a conference table as he spoke comfortably and, at times, hyperbolically, about the app. Frame is no stranger to technology and entrepreneurship, but said his goal was to make the platform his "one last company," that was "big, bold, ambitious."
"Safety was a highly under-served space," he said. "The thesis was, why wouldn’t anybody have this app? And that has sort of materialized."
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Citizen started in New York City, where Frame lived at the time, under a different name in 2016 as a free app service that provided its users with real-time updates about crimes and police activity in their area using 911 data. Users within a certain proximity could also opt to receive cell phone notifications, Frame said.
He said the company was tapping into the resources and access afforded through the mobile platform, which he called "the greatest degree of potential energy the world has ever seen."
At the time, he said, he saw it as "this enormous opportunity to connect my desire to create a mission oriented product with something that is direly needed by all people."
Frame and his team "cold-started this safety network" by honing in on the use of police radios and the roughly 10,000 911 calls placed in New York City at that time, he said.
"What allowed this app to be created was not necessarily permission from the police or permission from the city. It was really just the fact that radios had been open for the last 20 years," Frame continued. "And so, I don't think they would have ever expected that an app developer would come along and turn that into a public safety platform."
First, he said, the company built hardware devices "to capture all of the radio signals at once" and installed them throughout the Big Apple.
Frame added: "In the early days of this, myself and the team were literally like climbing buildings, trying to track down landlords that would let us put our hardware out there on their roof."
But what was then a new app known as "Vigilante" was initially greeted with skepticism from some, including the New York Police Department (NYPD).
"Crimes in progress should be handled by the NYPD and not a vigilante with a cellphone," an NYPD spokesperson said at the time, according to The New York Times. The app was reportedly temporarily scrubbed from Apple’s App Store before it was reintroduced under its new name.
Frame acknowledged that the company initially faced "tremendous resistance," but also the "inevitability of technological change."
"You can fight it or you can work with it. And we sort of look at it the same way. We're not trying to have any sort of enemies or opponents," he went on.
He later added: "People didn't understand what this was. But now that people are recognizing the benefit of community safety, community engagement … I think that it is starting to become embraced much more widely."
In the years since the app was launched, it has been expanded to include more than 60 cities nationwide, and boasts 10 million users and about 100,000 subscribers for its proprietary service, "Protect." And looking back at the company’s birthplace, 1 in 3 people in New York City now use the app, Frame said.
A New York University study published last year examined the use of Citizen App by medical and hospital emergency room staff and found that app alerts that from the 911 dispatch records, when sent out immediately, "notified app users more than a median half an hour earlier than" traditional emergency medical service systems and before ambulances arrived at the hospital.
"Had app alerts for the patients been directed to trauma team members, they may have provided more advanced notice of impending need for specialized trauma care," the study states.
Frame said fire department personnel, hospital medical staff and paramedics are among the groups that have begun to use the app "for situational awareness, to prepare for their decision-making."
"So there's just been this enormous byproduct that comes from this, you know, relatively simple and pure mission of just keeping our users safe," Frame said. "But it surprises us each and every day how people are using it to stay safe."
And the company is still growing.
Citizen announced its first acquisition on Jan. 26, revealing the company will be buying a "disaster preparedness technology firm" called harbor. Frame called it "a great combination of forces."
But the successes are not without their hiccups.
In one instance, a former Citizen employee told Mother Jones a staffer had been sent to document the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol by "pretending like he was one of them." The staffer allegedly recorded videos of the at-times violent events and sent them in to be used on the app, Mother Jones reported.
Frame insisted there was "zero prior discussion" and added: "I wasn’t even aware of it ‘til long after the fact.
"I think somebody was in the vicinity, and they went live. I don't even know how close they were. I didn't even see the video," he said. "So, that was definitely not something that was coordinated or anything like that."
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The company also came under fire after it shared an image of a person whom it identified as being an arson suspect involved in the May 2021 California wildfire, and offered a $30,000 reward for information, the Los Angeles Times reported. But it was the wrong guy, reports say.
"Once we realized this error, we immediately retracted the photo and reward offer," Citizen said in a statement provided to the L.A. Times. "We are actively working to improve our internal processes to ensure this does not occur again. This was a mistake we are taking very seriously," the company said."
Frame told FOX Business the company is "constantly evolving policies."
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"So, if there’s an incident that can get us a massive amount of growth at the expense of a victim or somebody that it would be indecent to cover this, we don't do it because growth is not the primary goal here," he said.