To some people, Dark Guardian must be a scary man. With his signature red bulletproof vest and a sharply trimmed beard, he stalks the streets of New York City looking for crime to fight. His friends Life, Dark Samaritan, Dusk, and Tony Dangerous sometimes join along.
"I'll go up against criminals. I've been up against drug dealers, pimps, you know, gang fights," he told me casually over the phone. "Sometimes, I'll go out there with flashlights, with bullhorns, and I just kick drug dealers out of their spot and ruin their business for a night.”
Behind the vest, Dark Guardian is Chris Pollak, a 32-year-old Brooklyn native. By day, he’s a martial-arts instructor, but by night, he’s a self-described crime-fighting vigilante.
For the last 13 years, Pollak has tracked police and crime activity, learning the patterns that unfold across New York City. But now, technology is taking the guesswork out of his crime-fighting. Pollak is an avid user of Vigilante, an app released in New York City last week, which alerts users to reported crimes in their area and encourages them to take videos at the scene.
"What if everyone within a quarter-mile of every reported crime were immediately made aware of it? What if there were a camera on every crime?" Vigilante developers wrote in a blog post announcing the app’s launch. "What if transparency existed — if we all knew where crime was occurring and how it was being resolved?"
"Can injustice, crime, and corruption — whether at the hands of a civilian, officer, or politician — survive transparency?"
But last week, Apple’s App Store dropped it over unspecified "concerns."
In a statement, Vigilante developer Sp0n told me, "The team is working with Apple to resolve the issue, and they are confident the app will be made available in the near future." (An Android version is expected to arrive within weeks, and Sp0n said it hopes to expand Vigilante to other cities.)
Despite this setback, Pollak says Vigilante provides a level of transparency that the public should support. But, as its promotional video shows, the app could encourage civilians to intervene in crimes and take matters in their own hands:
Still, Pollak is a fan.
"This Vigilante app is amazing because you're really seeing everything. It's not just what the news are saying; it's not just what the police are reporting," he said. "Back when I started, the technology wasn't as good, there wasn't as much recorded stuff, there wasn't as much information. So it was tougher for me to find these crime areas—these particular spots where crimes are going on."
But now, he added, "there's really no hiding anything.”
On his Facebook page, which has more than 7,000 likes, Pollak posts photos and videos of him on patrol, and writes status updates of his nightly outings. "They are going back to try and rob again, but I'm scaring them away," he recently wrote about the alleged robbery of a deli in his Staten Island neighborhood. "Stood out keeping watch … Got some more info on these thugs," he wrote in another update about the same crime.
Pollak’s approach has echoes of the conversation that self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman had with 911 dispatchers before he fatally shot unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012.
"Are you following him?" the dispatcher asked Zimmerman after he called to report a “suspicious guy” in his housing complex.
"Yeah,” Zimmerman responded.
"OK, we don't need you to do that."
The phone call, of course, ended in a national tragedy. But the spread of surveillance technology has enabled other troubling forms of vigilantism. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Reddit users tried to identify the perpetrators, but sparked a manhunt by falsely incriminating two innocent people. And Nextdoor, a private social network for neighbors, became notorious for racial profiling until the company took pains to address it. Meanwhile in Minneapolis, some Facebook pages obsessively monitor police scanners and broadcast updates to thousands of followers, sometimes posting inaccurate information in the process.
When asked to comment about Vigilante, the New York Police Department said in a statement, “Crimes in progress should be handled by the NYPD and not a vigilante with a cell phone."
In our conversation, Pollak acknowledged concerns that people might have with Vigilante and similar technology. "I know there's always worry that 'Oh no, what if people are going to go and do this or that and interfere.' My job isn't to interfere—my job is to get the police there, to keep people safe," he said.
But although “scumbags” have verbally threatened Pollak’s life has while he’s been on patrol, he’s never had to get physical with anyone. The amateur crime-fighter says he’d prefer to stand back, write descriptions, and take video (though his videos have never been used as police evidence before).
"I enjoy the app and I use it all the time, but what I do is about community," Pollak said. "I believe there's a hero in everyone, and everyone can step up and be a hero.”
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.