When the manager of a business in Washington, D.C.’s white, wealthy Georgetown neighborhood saw two men yelling outside, she accessed a private messaging application that hundreds of residents, retailers and police use to discuss people they deem suspicious. “2 black males screaming at each other in alley,” she wrote. “. . . Help needed.” The Washington Post said that as in thousands of messages sent through the service, the overwhelming majority of the people the app's users cited were black. Was the chatroom reducing crime or was it mostly engaged in racial profiling? That question is being asked across the U.S. as people experiment with services that bill themselves as a way to prevent crime, but also expose latent biases.
The application “SketchFactor,” which invited users to report “sketchy” people, faced allegations of racism in Washington and New York City. Another social network roiled Oakland, Ca., when white residents used Nextdoor.com to cite “suspicious activity” about black neighbors. Taking it even further was GhettoTracker.com, which asked users to rate neighborhoods based on whether they thought they were “safe” or a “ghetto.” “Operation GroupMe” is stirring controversy in Georgetown. The Georgetown Business Improvement District partnered with localpolice to launch the effort, which they call a “real-time mobile-based group-messaging app that connects Georgetown businesses, police officers and community members.” Since then, the app has attracted nearly 380 users who surreptitiously report on — and photograph — shoppers in an attempt to deter crime. Since March of last year, Georgetown retailers have dispatched more than 6,000 messages that discuss suspicious people. A review showed that 70 percent of people mentioned in 3,000 messages since January were black.