Today Your Phone Became a Police Radio
Roughly four hours after an unusual push-alert dragnet, Frank James was captured. Did policing just change?
You couldn’t miss the sound—a piercing, atonal whine—even if your phone had been set to vibrate. Usually this repetitive blare manifests as an Amber Alert, but this morning it accompanied a push notification about an alleged criminal on the loose in New York City. Curiously, the message that flashed across scores of smartphone screens didn’t use the phrase person of interest or suspect. Instead, the jarring alert felt more like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel:
WANTED for Brooklyn Subway Shooting: Frank James, Black male, 62 years old. Any information can be directed to NYPD TIPS at 800-577-TIPS (8477). More info & photo: NYC.gov/notifynyc
The alert had an unsettling—and perhaps unprecedented—quality to it: Given that the NYPD had been quick to rule out terrorism after yesterday’s attack, and that authorities were not seeking any potential accomplices, what was behind this sudden escalation?
New Yorkers immediately posted screenshots of the message that had hijacked their phones. “My phone just blared a terrifying noise and then commanded me to commence a vigilante search for the subway shooter, so you’ll have to excuse me,” the journalist Jordan Hoffman quipped on Twitter. Some social-media users wrote that they feared the push had been sent only to people in close proximity to the target, and that they were in imminent danger.
Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security under President Barack Obama, described the digital feature to me as a “reverse 911” mechanism, an emergency-management tool that lets authorities contact citizens.
The New York Alert website says that the system’s goal is “providing critical updates to protect lives,” and that it pushes notifications for events including severe weather, public-health warnings, and missing children. The site makes no mention of manhunts. Using the tool for this alert rises “to the level of a first-in-kind,” Kayyem said. “If you sort of cross this bridge, as New York has done—and done this for a non-child case, a non-Amber case—what are their standards going to be? And that’s worth asking. Because you couldn’t do it every time there was a shooting.”
A call to the tip line led to an instrumental shuffle-beat interrupted by a male baritone voice that said, “All agents are busy. Please continue to hold.” Users who attempted to click through to the government website saw that it had immediately crashed. (A spokesperson for the NYPD could not answer my questions about the geographic radius of the push alert, and deferred all comments to an upcoming press conference.)
Many New Yorkers have been on edge for more than 24 hours. For much of yesterday, police helicopters circled over large swaths of South Brooklyn, searching for James, who is accused of an attack at the 36th Street subway station that injured at least 23 people. Last night’s rush-hour commute was snarled with closures and delays across key parts of the transit system. Commuters who didn’t feel safe riding in train cars opted to use taxis and Ubers, even as wait times ticked up and prices surged. Major traffic arteries, including the Bowery in Manhattan and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, were more chaotic and clogged than usual.
Counterintuitively, deploying the loud, invasive alert may have been part of the authorities’ move to restore a sense of order. “Sometimes communities are disrupted, and the show of force, the show of activity, actually helps people get back to normal,” Kayyem said. “We’re coming up on the Boston Marathon this weekend, and obviously the anniversary of the bombing. For years there had been deployment of resources [for the marathon]. Was it ‘security theater’? Probably. Were you going to stop two guys from dropping bags and letting them detonate? Probably not. But it helped people feel like they could move on and return to the marathon.”
Mayor Eric Adams, a former New York City Transit Police officer who ran on the promise of increasing public safety, seemed focused on reassuring the public. He told MSNBC’s Morning Joe that he was “not going to leave any legal technology off the table when it comes down to keeping New Yorkers safe.”
Around 2 p.m., some four hours after the alert went out, the NYPD said that it had apprehended James in Manhattan’s East Village, roughly nine miles from the scene of yesterday’s attack. Whether or not this morning’s push alert meaningfully contributed to the arrest, the questions it raised aren’t going away.
“I think what you’ve unearthed is there is an inconsistency between the intended use of reverse 911 and its use today,” Kayyem said. “Is that a justified inconsistency? Maybe, because of the nature of the attack, but it certainly should not set precedent. This is something that should be discussed.”