A rare incident was unfolding in Boston in the wee hours of Monday: a police car chase. For those awake, there was only one place to get the news.
The @Stacos Twitter account tweeted ominously at 2:57 a.m.: “CAR CHASE.” A subsequent tweet minutes later explained that the car occupants had allegedly stolen about $100 worth of items from CVS on Morrissey Boulevard. But then, almost as suddenly as the incident had started, a tweet confirmed that the chase had ended.
The nearly 19,000 people who follow @Stacos get a constant feed of emergency incidents happening in and around Boston. The posts are curated by Stanley Staco and his three volunteers, based on information coming in through the police scanner. Staco’s slogan might sound cheesy, yet it fits: “crime, fire, and drama in Boston.” And in the 10 years or so that Staco has been at it, he’s gone through a process of trial and error of building a trusting audience.
With smartphones, there is no shortage of citizen vigilantes providing instantaneous reports of alleged crime incidents. There is an abundance of information available if you have the stomach for it. @Stacos’s reporting is an invitation to a realm of information that straddles the line between being intensely relevant and fodder for becoming a little too paranoid about public safety. And now a new app, Citizen, has upped the information ante, raising the question of whether ignorant bliss is preferable to real-time updates on emergency incidents happening just a few blocks away.
Staco, who’s 51 and originally from Haiti, launched @Stacos after realizing there was a vacuum of local, neighborhood-based crime reporting — the kind of incidents one would find in the police logs. He has three volunteers and strict rules around what to tweet and when. For instance, the car chase incident Monday was posted on delay for safety purposes.
“There’s certain [police-reported incidents] we don’t tweet about, such as domestic violence or suicide,” Staco said. “Anytime there are children involved, we don’t put their age. We also don’t put people’s addresses and we never mention hospitals.”
Staco maintains a tight control over whom he takes on as a volunteer. One of them is Maxwell Spinola, a 25 year-old Roxbury resident who was a follower of @Stacos first. “I’ve been following the account since 2012 or so. [My friends and I] would be driving around in the inner city and we’d see cops, or a street blocked off, and we’d wonder what’s going on so we’d check @Stacos. That was our reference.”
@Stacos tweets not only about reports of crime but also other public safety concerns. For instance, a recent post alerted followers to “40-50 ATVs” in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, another about an elderly person who was reported missing.
Meanwhile, the Citizen app seems to be getting popular in Boston. It is a young but fast-growing startup, with 7 million users nationwide and a presence in more than 30 cities. Citizen, which is free, launched in Boston in October and currently has between 30,000 to 40,000 users in the city, according to the company. The posts on Citizen also come from publicly broadcast incidents through the 911 system. A content moderation team reviews incidents and, if newsworthy, they’re posted on the app. Citizen has no staff in Boston; rather, moderators are centralized in hubs, mostly New York City, where the company’s headquarters are located.
It can be jarring to receive a daily stream of emergency alerts happening in close proximity. Do I really need to know that two people are fighting 1.5 miles away from my location? Or that a dog on the loose attacked a woman and her two dogs just blocks from my house, with no additional context? Maybe, maybe not. The Citizen app does breed a certain form of misplaced paranoia, while @Stacos seems to fall somewhere else on the spectrum: It feels more organic, selective, and local.
All the same, both represent examples of how the market is trying to fill a void of crime-related and basic public safety news. And that may be the bigger story here: There’s a strong appetite for that type of news, and someone has to report on it.