Georgetown Drops App Over Racial Issues

Photo by Brian Kapur/Current file photo
Businesses in Georgetown had used the app to combat shoplifting, but some of the messages led to concerns about racial profiling
Businesses in Georgetown had used the app to combat shoplifting, but some of the messages led to concerns about racial profiling

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

The GroupMe messenger app is gone from Georgetown, withdrawn by a local business group in the face of withering media coverage that highlighted allegations of racial profiling.

The smartphone application — which the Georgetown Business Improvement District began using in the neighborhood last year — allowed real-time conversations among businesses, residents and police officers, intended to instantly alert the entire community to a live crime threat. Metropolitan Police Department officials, business owners and community members lauded it as a clever use of technology to respond to high shoplifting rates and other public safety concerns.

But problems emerged. As first reported by The Georgetowner in August and then by The Washington Post last week, a disproportionate number of the reports circulated on the GroupMe app were warning of African-Americans deemed “suspicious” by retail personnel.

National reaction to The Post’s coverage painted Georgetown as an affluent white community that’s unwelcoming to minorities. After initially defending the program, the BID decided over the weekend to withdraw it.

“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,” BID CEO Joe Sternlieb said in a written statement Sunday night. “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.”

BID officials said yesterday that although it took longer than expected to disable the app, it went offline yesterday evening.

Sternlieb said the BID will look into whether new rules, training on racial profiling and stricter membership criteria could allow GroupMe or a similar app to resume operation in the future. A spokesperson for the BID said the group had no comment beyond the written statement.

To some Georgetown community leaders, the experiment with GroupMe was a costly blow to the neighborhood’s reputation and should not be repeated.

“That program does not represent Georgetown’s welcoming and respectful spirit,” advisory neighborhood commission chair Ron Lewis said in an interview. “The BID was right to take it down, and it needs to stay down.”

The commission hasn’t taken a formal position, but Jeff Jones, another commissioner, agreed with Lewis that GroupMe “should be permanently shut down and disavowed” in favor of contacting police via 911.

“I believe although it was reported [that] a small percentage of comments ... were completely inappropriate, the hurt and ill-will it has created is very high,” Jones wrote. “It is very unfortunate not only for those on the receiving end of the inappropriate comments, but also for the many individuals and businesses in our community who have been generous and kind to others for so many years.”

The idea behind GroupMe’s use in Georgetown is that residents who call 911 are often on the line for five or six minutes, whereas the app can alert not only police but also other users nearby who might spot a crime suspect or become more alert to an individual’s behavior. The Microsoft-owned app was launched in 2010, designed for a variety of conversations among large groups of users. 

“I would have to say that it has assisted the officers in getting to the scene and addressing a situation quicker,” Metropolitan Police Department 2nd District Cmdr. Melvin Gresham told The Current this summer. “If someone calls 911, there may be a delay because the information has to be filtered.”

A Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson didn’t respond to requests for comment this week.

Some community members do think that the concept behind GroupMe can be salvaged in Georgetown. Neighborhood commissioner Bill Starrels said in an interview that ongoing sensitivity training could curb the sort of “snide comments” sent out by some of the app’s users. “There were a small number of people that were doing things that they shouldn’t have been doing that really weren’t sensitive on any level and were just wrong on every level,” he said.

The Georgetowner’s Peter Murray, who authored the first article on the racial profiling concerns, wrote in a blog post last week that some of the recent coverage has picked the wrong target. “The app is not racist, some users are,” he wrote. And the flaws included racial profiling, he added, not just racially tinged commentary.

“The problem, demonstrated by the catalog of GroupMe messages is that users are more closely watching blacks than whites,” wrote Murray. This resulted, he said, not only in surveillance of innocent African-Americans but also disproportionate rates of black arrests while white shoplifters likely escaped notice.

This article appears in the Oct. 21 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.