September 24, 2021


All The Technology

Citizen App’s Private Security Firm Wants Full Police Powers

LAPS guards take two suspected trespassers into custody.

LAPS guards take two suspected trespassers into custody.
Screenshot: Los Angeles Professional Security / YouTube (Fair Use)

Last week, neighborhood snitch app Citizen was reported by Motherboard to be testing an on-demand private security force that would respond to user-submitted “incidents.” The plans are a considerable escalation of the app’s existing business model, which relies on police scanners and user reports to create live maps of rumored criminal activity. One of Citizen’s partners wants to escalate those plans further.

As a prime dumping ground for oft-unverified crime reports, Citizen has already faced accusations of fostering racism, paranoia, and vigilantism—that last thing being more than justifiable, as the app was originally called Vigilante and encouraged users to track down and film crimes in progress. Not good, unless you’re Travis Bickle! According to Motherboard, Citizen is pairing with two firms for the “privatized secondary emergency response network,” Securitas and Los Angeles Professional Security (LAPS). The latter company’s founder thinks a neat way of getting around being labeled as vigilantes would be to just officially give private security firms the same powers as actual police. That includes things like booking detainees into jail, “respond in force” to any “negative element,” and clearing camps of people experiencing homelessness.

LAPS employs uniformed guards that respond to calls of disturbances or suspicious activity for clients, who ride in vehicles marked similarly to police cars and are sometimes decked out with guns and body armor. In a YouTube “documentary” posted by LAPS and flagged by Motherboard, CEO and founder James Caspari explains that while private security personnel is currently allowed to detain individuals committing serious crimes until police arrive, it’s a “waste [of] police resources” if they “have to wait and a peace officer has to take them… If we’ve already cleared it… why can’t we just take ‘em to jail?”

In the video, Caspari and another LAPS guard can be seen conducting what they called a “private person arrest” of two suspected trespassers in an abandoned building. Guards draw what appear to be tasers with red dot sights are drawn on the suspects, while the CEO assures the camera as they are handcuffed that “We have to make sure nothing happens to them. If something happens to them it’s 100 percent our fault.”

At other points in the video, Caspari complains that “Private security has zero authority on a public space” and is seen detaining suspected trespassers at a client’s business. There, he argues police “are going to take possession of our prisoner, and now they’re going to spend two, three hours booking him, taking an inventory of their possessions. Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we save the city time? Why can’t we take them to jail, give them our body camera footage, give them a copy of the report? Why can’t we do that?”

On the subject of people struggling with homelessness, Caspari argues that police “don’t have time to deal with a guy pushing two shopping carts down the road.” Instead, he says, LAPS could fill the role of booting them from neighborhoods. As Motherboard reported, Caspari also suggests in the video that LAPS personnel could handle “mental health calls,” misinterpreting a Los Angeles Times article that detailed Los Angeles City Council proposals to have trained specialists respond to people experiencing emotional distress rather than police:

Caspari told the camera that many folks in the neighborhood were clients. “They’re tremendously frightened. They’re paying a private security company to be a buffer,” he said. “All we can do is drive up and down the street. We don’t have the option to remove them. Our hands are fairly tied.”

“The LAPD wants to step back from taking mental health calls. Why not us? We have a mobile patrol force. Give us the training. Let’s put rules, regulations, and transparency in place,” Caspari said, citing a 2020 Los Angeles Times article.

If Caspari had his way, then, private security firms accountable only to shareholders and clients would be allowed to use force in ways that, somewhat incredibly, threaten to be worse than even the notoriously violent LAPD. If he both had his way and a citywide partnership with Citizen, that might amount to the dystopian backstory from Robocop. U.S. cities are already over-policed for the kind of petty or minor crimes that a firm like LAPS is likely to be called in for. As Motherboard noted, Caspari has touted other tech available to LAPS, including vehicles with loudspeakers for broadcasting crowd dispersal orders and the ability for clients to integrate doorbell cams to help widen the company’s surveillance capabilities.

Motherboard originally reported that Citizen had touted the on-demand private security teams to the Los Angeles Police Department, which it claimed said would welcome the help dealing with property crime calls. It’s not clear whether any user could call them in, or just those using a subscription from Citizen’s Protect service, which is billed at $19.99 monthly and allows users to turn their mobile phones into a security camera of sorts watched remotely by a “Protect agent.”

Citizen has given ample reason to be skeptical about putting another way for the rich and/or paranoid to summon uniformed protectors. Last week, the CEO of Citizen, Andrew Frame, personally encouraged the app to put out a $30,000 bounty on a houseless man falsely suspected of starting the Palisades Fire in California, putting $10,000 of his own money down towards the payment.

A separate man was arrested for starting the blaze, but not until an estimated 860,000 users had seen the wrong suspect’s photo, which it wasn’t even clear where Citizen got. It may have been related to the Pacific Palisades Residents Association, a wealthy neighborhood association the Verge reported spread unevidenced and since-deleted Facebook rumors about a “homeless man living in our hillsides with a criminal past” that was planning “a wild rampage.”