Citizen · Gacy · Dirty John

Plus: A cop who won an award for...not working?

Sarah and I basically raced each other to put this on our budget doc. Citizen, the crowdsourced crime-reporting app formerly known as Vigilante, has been a frequent target of Best Evidence, mainly because its Running Man-level bullshit both irritates and fascinates me.

The app, which has recently been in the news for stuff like pushing private security for folks frightened by the crimes reported in the app (conflict of interest much) and encouraging vigilante justice against the innocent* made headlines in the typically tough-on-crime New York Post. The Murdoch-owned tabloid reports that Citizen is now paying New Yorkers $25 an hour to livestream from crime scenes, with a spokesperson saying that “Citizen has teams in place in some of the cities where the app is available to demonstrate how the platform works, and to model responsible broadcasting practices in situations when events are unfolding in real time.”

That revelation follows a Daily Dot piece from last month, which claimed that “Citizen app is faking local residents in Los Angeles.” According to the Dot, a guy named “Landon,” who appears to be a prolific L.A. crime livestreamer, was “portrayed as a regular Citizen user,” like the Forrest Gump of Los Angeles smash-and-grabs.

The app’s body of work when it comes to enabling the dystopia has spurred publications as disparate as TechCrunch and Fast Company to call out the company in recent days. Both pubs are arguably cheerleaders for tech the way the Post is a cheerleader for the cops/crime reporting — interesting that all three of these outlets are cocking more than a brow at the way Citizen is telling and selling crime. From Fast Company:

Citizen believes that mass surveillance will make us safer. A blog post from 2016 wondered, “What if everyone within a quarter mile of every reported crime were immediately made aware of it? What if there were a camera on every crime? What if transparency existed—if we all knew where crime was occurring and how it was being resolved? Would crime as we know it still exist? Transparency is the single most powerful tool against crime and injustice, and we believe it will rebuild cooperation towards a shared vision. Cooperation, in turn, will lead to safer communities, better cities, and a stronger nation.”

In reality, a culture of mass surveillance leads to the creation of apps like Nextdoor, which is known as much for accusations of racial profiling as for enabling friendly neighborhood tips. Like Nextdoor, Citizen easily lends itself to racial bias, harassment, and greater surveillance.

It’s TechCrunch, however, that might have the answer to why Citizen’s shenanigans are getting more outrageous:

Citizen can only function if it has enough of a user base, and its attempts to corral civilians to use the app have gotten more and more desperate. According to SensorTower, the app hit a monthly download high in June 2020, in the wake of widespread Black Lives Matter protests. (So, as the country protested police brutality, 677,000 people responded by downloading a policing app). But the following month, just 207,000 people downloaded the app. Since then, growth has been pretty stagnant — 292,000 people downloaded Citizen in March 2020, and 283,000 people downloaded it in March 2021.

As of a January SEC filing, Citizen had raised an additional $73 million in funding, on top of several other funding rounds since the company was built from a $1 million seed round from notorious anti-journalism investor Peter Thiel. I know, that sounds like a lot of money…but you’d be surprised by how fast a startup can burn through cash. Take a look at your phone. Is the Citizen app still on it? If so, you’re helping keep them in business. Something to think about! — EB

*To be clear, no one deserves vigilante justice, not even the guilty.

If you’re into Johns Gacy or Meehan, this is a good week for your ears. I know I say this all the time, but man oh man it seems like the true-crime podcast production machine is even more robust than ever. Here are some that crossed my desk over the weekend that I’m intrigued by enough to pass the details on to you. — EB

Defense Diaries
This podcast from attorney Bob Motta approaches John Wayne Gacy from a new angle: His dad, Robert, was one of Gacy’s defense attorneys and the show seeks to investigate the (doubtlessly flawed) investigation into the case. No one here is claiming Gacy was framed (nor did Gacy, as we all know), but Motta’s show (which has been ongoing since April) is uncovering details like “an admission by three retired Des Plaines police officers and a former Cook County evidence technician that key pieces of evidence that led to the second search warrant, which resulted in Gacy’s arrest, may have been fudged,” as the Chicago Sun-Times reports. “It was the right result, we all know that,” Motta says, “but it’s a slippery slope. We can’t start crapping on the constitution on a gut call.”

The First Wife: John Meehan's Reign of Terror
This is a low-investment listen, a two-episode show on the experiences of Tonia Bales, “Dirty” John Meehan’s first wife. “Through new interviews with the people who knew her and John best and exclusive archival materials, Tonia learns that there’s a lot about her traumatic marriage that she never knew, including one bombshell that will change her and her daughters’ lives forever.” This seems less like a must-listen than a show for Dirty John completists, the podcast version of a DVD extra (kids, ask your parents). But since Meehan’s come up lately, I wanted to bring this show, which dropped last week, to your attention.

Michael Caine: Gangs
This six-episode podcast dropped its first three episodes last month, with Caine (whose bona fides, per the show’s logline, are that “Sir Michael Caine knows a thing or two about gangs: whether that’s joining one as a kid, or playing gangsters in movies for over 50 years”) covering the Krays, Griselda Blanco, and John Gotti. No one here would argue that Caine is anything close to an investigative reporter, but who gives a shit, he’s Michael Caine.

This show on a 1990s-era SoCal arsonist with ties to an unpublished novel about fire comes to us from Sony Podcast, and is hosted by former TV exec Kary Antholis. Using cinematic sound design, combined with archival and newfound footage, Firebug invites listeners to join Antholis as he journeys to figure out “where fiction meets reality,” the press release reads, which makes the podcast sound pretty fancy! Its first two episodes dropped last week.

I’m so taken with this San Bernardino Sun story on El Monte’s police officer of the year. It’s just the most awkward thing ever: In June, Officer Carlos Molina was honored in a public ceremony as El Monte’s Police Officers Association’s Officer of the Year for 2020, even though he was on paid administrative leave (that is, not at work — but collecting a paycheck totaling around $205K) from September 2019 to April 2021.

Molina went on leave after he “a year working on a child-abuse investigation that yielded little work product” and “charged the city for 42 hours of overtime pay” during that time. Following an administrative investigation, he was knocked back down to parol officer; the investigation is “pending arbitration,” Joe Nelson reports.

So how did he end up El Monte’s top cop? It appears that the city’s police union put him forward for the honor, and though one police officer begged the city council to cancel the ceremony, the city’s mayor insisted on moving ahead. Snip:

Mayor Jessica Ancona, who is endorsed by the police union, had placed the awards recognition ceremony on the City Council agenda for the June meeting after the union’s traditional awards ceremony, which usually occurs in December at its annual Christmas party, was canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After receiving Pitts’ email the night before the meeting, City Councilman Martin Herrera reached out to Ancona the following morning via text, asking her how she planned to deal with the matter. Ancona refused to pull the agenda item, despite Herrera’s concerns.

“They have invited family members and ordered a cake. If you have enough votes to pull the item, I suggest you contact the CM (city manager) immediately so that her office can inform the EMPOA,” Ancona said in her text message to Herrera. “I sent this item over to staff on or about June 17th. That gave them 11-12 days to address the item. Nobody expressed concerns.”

It’s just so strange! I mean, if my gym said they were going to honor me as athlete of the year for 2020, I’d know not to show up to the ceremony because it’s clearly a diss — so why is Molina there and looking so happy? Is that the bliss that comes from getting paid for not working for 19 months, or something else? I can’t stop thinking about this strange, strange tale. — EB

And here’s someone who’s been working her ass off. Julie K. Brown’s 2018 newspaper series “Perversion of Justice” unveiled convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s sweetheart deal, a story that eventually caught up to Epstein enough that he ended up in jail, again, and we all know how that story ended.

But while Brown was working to expose Epstein — and doing a good enough job that FBI investigators credited her for his eventual arrest — she was also struggling to keep a roof over her head. A career newspaper journalist, she’s endured pay cuts and rounds of layoffs, all while doing some of the best true crime reporting in the nation.

Writing for the New York Times, op-ed writer Michelle Goldberg notes that

Because of Brown’s reporting, Epstein seemed on the verge of real legal accountability when he died in his cell, apparently by suicide, in 2019. That reporting was done in the face of powerful headwinds. She was up against Epstein’s intimidating legal team and fears about her safety.

But Brown also had to contend with the punishing economics of the contracting newspaper industry, which for the last decade has been shedding experienced reporters and forcing those who remain to do much more with much less.

Brown, who has worked in journalism for more than three decades, got her start in Philadelphia at a time when newspapers were thriving. “We had so many news organizations and papers and it was so competitive,” she told me. There were people covering “every single city council, planning board, zoning board” meeting. In the past, she said, newspaper journalists were “used to uncovering all this corruption. We’re used to finding injustices pretty easily and writing these stories pretty easily. And now we just don’t have the staff to do that anymore.”

Nevertheless, Brown persisted. Her book, also called Perversion of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story, came out last week, and will soon be turned into an Adam McKay-led HBO mini-series. And now, she says, she might move on from Epstein. “At some point you sort of feel like, ‘What is your purpose?’,” she tells Goldberg. “I feel like maybe my purpose right now isn’t this story anymore. Maybe I need to move onto another story like this that nobody was paying attention to.” — EB

Wednesday on Best Evidence: A surprising Best Evidence move!

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