Are Crime Watch Push Notification Apps Making People Paranoid?

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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push notification appsA major issue is being debated today about whether crime watch push notification apps are making the general population more paranoid. The question remains whether we should be concerned with the public's perception of rising crime or whether this is part of a larger issue involving the desensitization caused by notification overload or alert fatigue.

How Crime Watch Push Notification Apps Are Becoming The Modern Police Scanner

For decades, citizens have been able to monitor police scanners as long as they had a radio. The technology is not commonplace, but has historically been used by reporters, off-duty law enforcement, or perhaps the nosiest neighbors. Technology has made scanner-data more accessible. Some police scanner apps exist today that provides you with "...access to police scanner transmissions via the internet."

Many crime monitoring apps filter information from police scanners into digestible push notifications for residents. Engineers choose which emergency calls will be reported - these apps are unlikely to publish situations which take place in a private residence, and several apps have moved away from reports of suspicious people or vague descriptions, as these have been responsible for racial-profiling incidents. 

Many crime-monitoring apps advertise their platforms as a way to increase situational awareness. Residents can open an app, find their location, and locate emergency incidents in the area. The apps often act as a social network as well - allowing residents to chat about a situation, stream live video of incidents, or post photos from the scene. 

Even though the content is allegedly vetted by the app developers, many local officials and safety managers have discouraged use of these apps, citing several concerns about accuracy and suggesting that residents may be making themselves hyper-vigilant without need. 

Some critics say that crime monitoring apps are prone to mischaracterize incidents or crimes. According to BuzzFeed, crime watch apps often transcribe information from unverified 911 calls, and are therefore unreliable. For example, a situation in which teenagers are loitering and squabbling, may be reported as an attempted armed robbery. A routine traffic stop might be reported as law enforcement searching for a runaway criminal, even if the situation doesn’t pose any danger to pedestrians or nearby residents. The paranoia and anxiety caused from these push notifications compromises resident's sense of security, often without cause. 

Another issue with residents routinely accessing scanner data is the motivation to interfere in first response. A few of the apps were initially developed to encourage citizens to take a vigilantism approach to theft or crime in the community, alarming local safety leaders. In addition to endangering people and promoting reckless behavior, vigilantism also interferes with law enforcement or EMS, increasing the potential for misunderstandings between residents and police officers. 

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Building community understanding and trust can be undermined by an inflated sense of danger. Many residents report that usage of these apps hasn’t improved their concept of personal safety. The technology poses a difficult conundrum - people want to be informed, but tuning in for constant push-notifications, especially alerts which may not reflect the true nature of an emergency, can take a mental toll. Local safety leaders should acknowledge that residents are downloading police-monitoring apps, and do their best to paint a more accurate picture of security in local communities. 

Is the paranoia from crime watch push notifications unfounded?

Metropolitan areas in the United States have never been more safe. In 2018, violent crime and murder rates in the 30 largest U.S. cities in the United States declined by 7.6%, and the overall crime rate declined by 2.9% from 2017, as per Vox. These statistics represent a larger trend - violent crime in the United States has declined sharply over the last quarter-century, according to the Pew Research Center. Based on annual FBI crime reports, the violent crime rate fell 49% between 1993 and 2017. A survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed an even more dramatic change, finding the rate to have fallen by 74% over that span. 

Despite these statistics, it seems that the public believes the national crime rate is rising and cities are less safe. There are many factors contributing to the misconception, including access to police data via crime watching apps, the role of push notifications, and the never end crime news cycle driving anxiety. 

Pew Research Center noted several interesting points about the misalignment between public perception of safety and actual data on these concerns. In 18 of the 22 Gallup Polls conducted since 1993 that have asked about national crime, 6 out of 10 Americans said they thought there was more crime in the United States compared with the year before, despite annual decline. Yet, while the common perception is that crime levels are rising on a national level, fewer Americans tend to think that crime is rising in their area. Unfortunately, the impact of crime-reporting apps and alert fatigue may shift this perception, convincing residents that their neighborhoods are more dangerous than in reality. 

This misunderstanding of crime data, an issue exacerbated by the increased access to police logs via apps, can have an impact on community life and safety. In the instance of a true emergency, residents can become desensitized, and not understand which situations require immediate response.

So How Do You Send Critical Public Safety Announcements That Won't Get Ignored?

Technology can have an effective role in crime prevention and resident safety, despite the negative impact of crime watch paranoia and overwhelmingly constant push notifications. Some tools may inspire anxiety in residents and compromise emergency protocol, but the popularity of crime watch tools for the public shows residents are interested in community safety. Establishing open communication between local officials, law enforcement, and residents will promote a better understanding of safety concerns. 

Investing in a mass notification system can increase situational awareness and establish emergency protocol as it's serving information from a trusted source, without causing residents to become hyper-vigilant. Providing reliable and timely emergency information to residents will likely encourage healthy crime watch and prevention behavior, whether they use crime watch apps or not.

Alert fatigue is an issue throughout the United States, and too many push notifications increase the risk of desensitizing residents to critical emergency information. It's important for local safety leaders to assure residents that they are safe by setting the tone for emergency communications.

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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