Georgetown BID To Shut Down, Reconsider GroupMe Thread

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The Georgetown Business Improvement District said it will take its GroupMe account offline following an August investigative report by The Georgetowner and a follow-up piece by the Washington Post that identified a man who was wrongfully arrested because he resembled a known thief flagged by users of GroupMe.

BID chief executive Joe Sternlieb wrote last night:

“Georgetown is one of the most diverse retail districts in the region, and its merchants work hard every day to welcome visitors — regardless of race, ethnicity or income.

Over the last several days Georgetown has received a great deal of attention stemming from a news story that evaluated the use of a smartphone app called GroupMe that the BID, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), and retail merchant community launched as a pilot in 2014. The intent was to provide real-time communication as part of a public safety partnership to reduce shoplifting.

While the app has been effective in deterring shoplifting, the news stories and the dialogue that followed have brought up legitimate concerns about the use of the app and its potential to wrongfully identify shoppers as shoplifters. The overriding goal of our retail community is to ensure that everyone who visits Georgetown feels welcomed, comfortable, safe, and that their civil rights and individual dignity are protected and respected. So long as there are questions about how this app is being used, this goal cannot be met.

The BID’s Executive Committee and staff have decided to take the app off-line in order to do a top to bottom review of the public safety communication program associated with it. Our mission going forward will be to develop a new set of rules and protocols for use of real-time communication tools that may help us meet our mission; to develop a robust anti-racial-profiling training program that would be required to be completed before anyone gets access to a future version of such a tool; and an analysis of the appropriate size and membership criteria of the group. Only after this work has been completed, and we can determine that a tool like the GroupMe app can be deployed to effectively meet the highest standards of professionalism and protection of all Georgetown’s customers, will we revisit putting it back on line.”

After the decision was announced in the messaging thread, users defended the app and raised the possibility of starting an unofficial “shadow” group to continue monitoring public safety and shoplifting in Georgetown. One user writes, “The beauty of this app is the instantaneous nature of it – where within minutes, we can protect one another not only from theft & monetary loss but also of danger from individuals likely to use a form of violence,” while another posts, “Really unfortunate. I hope it’s up and running again soon. Thank you for helping to keep our neighborhood safe.”

MPD Officer Antonial Atkins, one of the figures instrumental in setting up the app, wrote in GroupMe, “This app have enabled to have the residents, Businesses and Officers to foster better relationships with each other and strengthen ties in the community by building trusting relationship with each other.”

A neighborhood resident upset with the decision asked, “Is there a way to informally create a new group for those of us in this chat/community who would like to use & continue it – even if it is “unofficial” or unrecognized/unauthorized by the BID?” before stating, “My suggestion is for an interim list from this community/group.”

Another resident, a new GroupMe user, asks, “What resource will fill the breach when this ap [sic] is shut down?” The same user goes on to say, “As long as members first describe suspicious action and then follow up with the person’s description, we will avoid profiling,” adding, “Participants, let’s not let this resource die” and a rally call for users to contact elected officials about the issue.

BID chief operating officer John Wiebenson replies, “All, please recognize that while many of you have positive feelings about this app it has caused some controversy in the community that is reflecting poorly on Georgetown. This is not a chat group and is not the forum to discuss how to proceed. The BID will be organizing community meetings in the very near future to discuss all of the issues that have been raised. Please bring your comments and ideas to that forum.”

The resident who proposed a new group in “the interim” replies saying that members of the group “will be left with no alternative but to create an unauthorized/unofficial ‘shadow’ group.”

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