To Catch a Petty Thief: The App

Upon the initial release of Facewatch, London’s latest initiative to invite the community to police itself, I was troubled. This world doesn’t need an app that allows a gang of Joe Mercs to police the streets and rid the fair city of all its petty thieves. According to the website, Facewatch is “an online crime reporting system for businesses to report crime, providing the full evidential package required by the police.”

Upon the initial release of Facewatch, London’s latest initiative to invite the community to police itself, I was troubled. This world doesn’t need an app that allows a gang of Joe Mercs to police the streets and rid the fair city of all its petty thieves. After FamilyWatchdog.us made life as a man with a beard quite difficult in a neighborhood surrounded by grade schools, I understood the power of presumption and how anyone could look guilty when they walked their dog with too much bounce in their step.

In theory, the app seems forward thinking. According to the website, Facewatch is “an online crime reporting system for businesses to report crime, providing the full evidential package required by the police.”

Businesses register with Facewatch, and as a registered user, they can upload crimes onto the website, including incident details, witness statements, CCTV evidence, and images of the suspect. While the police will have full access to all of these details, the images of the suspects will be distributed to groups who have a shared business interest.

Up to this point, I’m onboard. It reminds me of a time shortly after my college friends and I realized that writing bad checks was not the same as printing money, and that pizza places often shared lists of names and aliases of those who had scammed a free pie with faux currency. I find little more embarrassing than a close friend detailing why your remaining days at college will be free of stuffed crust super slices because you wrote a few bad checks, each week.

You find the same file sharing at grocery stores within the community, primarily in departments responsible for the sale of alcohol and tobacco. Often, the screen shots from closed-circuit cameras are humorous. How they wouldn’t expect some of these patrons to steal is both fair and stupid. I worked in a health and beauty department for years, one of the most notorious for shrinkage; we could often pick out those who were going to nab a package of Mach 3 razors or condoms (the most swiped product during my tenure). Corporate policy prevented any heroics. The closest I came to nabbing a proper villain was when I told a small child to put a window decal back on the sheet sold in the impulse aisle. I threatened to tell the parents; he held a stoic look of defiance; I turned and muttered something regarding his impending life on the streets and returned to stocking deodorant.

I begin to have a problem with Facewatch when the bobbies open the database to individual users. A member of the public only has to enter a local zip code into his/her smartphone or iPad to browse the unidentified images of suspects. I suppose that if a user had a keen enough eye, they could stand to make a decent living if London has a similar $1,000 Crime Stoppers payout for any tip leading to the arrest and conviction of criminals.

Neighborhoods are paranoid enough as they stand. If I host two or more people for dinner or a weekend barbecue, I can guarantee that we’ll see our neighbor to the east poking her head over the fence to make sure we’re not smoking hashish or shooting heroin. Turn the music up, light the grill, and set out the ladder golf set and in 15 minutes that gray perm will start peeking over the pine. Such paranoia would only be enhanced by such an app that offered little more than a hazy CCTV image of a petty thief.

Look at the image provided by Facewatch; it’s a brunette with a ponytail. Coincidentally, that describes a third of my female friends on a hot summer day. What is to stop a neighbor with bad intentions from ruining our Saturday, or the days of other deviant doppelgängers? False reporting is prolific enough with suspects’ images plastered on digital billboards and late night, local news; do we truly need the Facewatch app? I see more potential for harm than good, as known associates may be the least likely to download it — unless, of course, it becomes a game with points assigned to days featured on Facewatch without being caught.

I suppose that it works to cut costs, as cops need not respond to non-emergency calls, and it enhances community accountability by asking the community to police itself. I think it’s a step too far in the wrong direction. It’s one thing to alert a fellow businessman to repeat offenders; it’s another to deputize everyone with a smartphone.

What’s your take? Comment below or email david.mantey@advantagemedia.com.

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