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Citizen app posts image of wrong man as arson suspect in Palisades fire

Firefighters
Firefighters work between Pacific Palisades and Topanga Canyon as air drops continued Sunday.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

It was a modern-day version of a Wild West “wanted” poster.

An image of a young man was sent on the Citizen personal safety app to users in the Los Angeles basin after a brush fire broke out late Friday night and quickly grew. The post labeled the man as an arson suspect and offered a $30,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in connection with the Pacific Palisades fire.

Within hours, the app’s million or so users saw the image, and tips poured in to authorities.

But there was one problem: The man was not the person identified by an LAPD observer in a helicopter as the one seen igniting multiple fires that eventually swelled to consume more than 1,300 acres between Pacific Palisades and Topanga Canyon.

When Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies caught up with the man in the photo — identified as Devin Hilton — late Saturday, investigators quickly eliminated him as a suspect in connection with the growing blaze. Multiple law enforcement sources told The Times that the LAPD observer in the helicopter informed investigators Hilton was not the man he had spotted on the ground Friday night, when the blaze ignited.

Citizen, which has been accused of sparking vigilantism in New York by encouraging users to capture recordings of crimes in progress, posted a photograph of the man it had obtained from private sources and offered a cash reward for information that led to his arrest.

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The company said Sunday it made a mistake in posting the man’s image.

“We publicly posted the photo and offered a cash reward for information without formal coordination with the appropriate agencies. Once we realized this error, we immediately retracted the photo and reward offer. We are actively working to improve our internal processes to ensure this does not occur again. This was a mistake we are taking very seriously,” the company said.

The Pacific Palisades fire, which is still active, forced at least 1,000 people to evacuate their homes over the weekend.

Citizen has not identified the source of the photo it posted and said only that it came from a tipster. The company, which gathers information such as police scanner talk and alerts before sending notifications to users within a certain radius of an incident, said it did not formally corroborate the information with Los Angeles authorities.

In a briefing Monday, Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said the actual suspect was arrested at 2:30 p.m. Sunday after investigators determined there were multiple points of origin for the fire.

LAPD officials Monday identified the suspect as Ramon Santos Rodriguez, 48, who has been arrested on suspicion of arson. He is being held on more than $100,000 bail.

Activists have long been concerned that data-driven applications such as Citizen that provide brief suspect descriptions can highlight minorities as a source of crime and lead to racial profiling. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. James Braden told Spectrum News that the move by Citizen could have had potentially disastrous consequences for the man who was wrongly labeled.

Citizen has evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic. City and county officials have encouraged residents to download it as Los Angeles’ official app for contact tracing, giving its popularity a massive boost. Citizen first appeared on the scene in L.A. in the spring of 2019.

“We provide real-time situational awareness,” Andrew Frame, Citizen’s founder and chief executive, said in an interview with The Times. “That empowers people.... Once a citizen knows what the police are doing, it actually fosters trust.”

In the wake of the arson error, Citizen added to its statement Monday: “Ultimately, the safety of our users is always our top priority. With that in mind, we hold ourselves to the highest editorial standards. We have an extensive set of guidelines developed with feedback from seasoned professionals in media and law enforcement. We take great care to differentiate incidents and describe them accurately and objectively. Further, all user-generated content is monitored by a highly trained, 24/7 team of moderators.”

Citizen received a torrent of criticism on Twitter for falsely accusing the man.

“OK, I’ve turned against the Citizen app,” tweeted comedian Kathy Griffin. “The hosts are offering a $30K reward for completely unsubstantiated evidence regarding a homeless guy who they think started the #Palisadesfire. Now people are trying to hunt him down. No proof it was even arson much less this guy. Gross.”

Terrazas said at the briefing that “the person in custody, we feel we have the right person.”

Asked whether the suspect was homeless, Terrazas answered: “I don’t know.”

After an LAPD observer in the helicopter spotted the suspect setting fires on Friday, investigators were unable to find the man on the ground because of smoke and heavy brush, according to law enforcement and fire department officials.

The fire remained listed at 1,325 acres Monday and was at 23% containment.

“We expect relatively cool temperatures and good overnight humidity recoveries,” the National Weather Service in Los Angeles tweeted.

More than 500 personnel are fighting the fire, according to Terrazas, who said no lives or homes have been lost. One firefighter suffered a minor injury.

The blaze ignited about 10 p.m. Friday in the 1800 block of North Michael Lane in a remote neighborhood of Pacific Palisades, steps away from the Trailer Canyon trailhead, LAFD officials said. Cornered in hard-to-reach canyon terrain, the fire grew to 15 acres overnight. Firefighting helicopters swarmed into the area, dropping water.

The fire was first reported through “information from an LAPD helicopter who saw something from the sky,” Terrazas said. The chopper pilot noticed the fire burning in more than one place; when there are multiple points of origin, the chief said, suspicions of arson are raised.

At about 4:30 p.m. Saturday, another fire emerged north of the original burn, the L.A. Fire Department reported, exploding to encompass 750 acres by nightfall. The blaze was concentrated amid thick chaparral dried out from a lack of rainfall, authorities said. Firefighters clambered over canyons in the Pacific Palisades to fight the flames, but most of the containment measures came from helicopters.


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