On the evening of Friday, July 7, two days after the release of the hit game Pokémon Go, 26-year-old Rochester native Ian Gauger launched the game on his phone and headed out into his Brooklyn neighborhood to play.
Gauger, a Master student in the architecture program at the Rochester Institute of Technology, had arrived in New York City at the beginning of June for an internship with the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, and is staying near the Marcy Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
When he opened up the game, he took notice of its warning to be aware of his surroundings, but also felt fairly confident on the streets. He’s over six feet tall and as such unconcerned about being physically threatened, he told Bushwick Daily.
He also noted that since his arrival in the city for his internship, he’d been struck by the visibility of New York’s police presence, which he characterizes as a contrast to police operations in Rochester: he felt like if he ever needed an officer, it would only take a few minutes to find one. Gauger is also white.
As he headed down Bartlett Street, a short street which runs between Flushing Avenue and Broadway just southwest of East Williamsburg, he noticed a Pokéstop in a small square with a playground in it and decided to cut across the area to Whipple Street on the other side so he could swipe on his phone as he passed the Pokéstop to gain experience in the game.
It was after dark, around 9 p.m., but Gauger had observed that Pokéstops were carefully curated and were often located at interesting places in real life in addition to being points of interest in the game, so he didn’t think twice about taking the route across the park. The area wasn’t illuminated, but Gauger didn’t notice any signage stating it was closed. Besides, the park appeared deserted, and would only take seconds to cross.
He hurried across the park and was about to step onto the sidewalk on the other side when someone shouted out to him: he needed to stop and come back, the park was closed after dark. He turned around and realized that a small structure in the open area had obscured three police officers, who had three people in custody against the wall of the structure.
The square, called Bartlett Playground, is officially a city park, albeit a small one. Gauger had not known that city parks close at dusk, which he explained to the officers promptly. He also got ready to hold up his phone with the game on it as explanation. One of the officers said “I understand,” but told him to put it away and to put his hands where they could see them before asking for his ID.
He provided it and the officers ran it. Assuming that being in a park after dusk was the only possible crime he was being considered guilty of, Gauger asked if he would be getting a ticket and realized that the situation might be more serious than that when one of the officers said “maybe” and told him he needed to be quiet.
The officers patted him down, explaining that the park is a “hotbed for narcotics.” The three other people with officers were two teenagers, a boy and a girl, and a man whose hood was up; all three were black, as was at least one, possibly two, of the officers, according to Gauger’s recollection. The teenage girl also had logistical questions for the officers about being detained.
The ID check complete, Gauger was allowed to go, as were the boy and the girl; the officers informed the other man that he had an active warrant for his arrest: he remained in the park.
Gauger feels sure that the officers had been up on their Pokémon news from their response to his explanation that he’d been playing, but nonetheless, explained that, “If I was an African American in this situation, I would have felt more insecure,” acknowledging the privilege he knows he holds as a white American.
As soon as he was told he was free to go and he was out of the park, Gauger got out his phone and launched Pokémon go right away once again. He had been following news about the game for six months leading up to its release and wasn’t ready to call it a night after the interruption on his first day with it.
He is a long time Pokémon player and considers the newest game “a cultural phenomenon,” describing a recent lunch break with his coworkers during which he dropped a lure in a city park and watched with delight as the park filled up with other players.
“I don’t think anything nefarious occurred,” Gauger emphasized, describing his experience with the police in a phone interview with Bushwick Daily on Monday evening. As a counterpoint, he discussed how the game provided players with a means of connecting face to face in the public sphere.
Gauger posted his account of the incident to Reddit, and responses to his post from other Pokémon Go players expressed concerns about the potential for the game to be used for setups. One response reads “I’ve only been playing [sic] In brooklyn so far and someone keeps using lures infront of shady warehouses. [sic] I KNOW Im gonna get mugged if I keep going there.”
The game has indeed been used by IRL phone snatchers—and there are also concerns about the vulnerability and depth of its data collection functions, which some experts characterize as fairly standard and others are decrying as invasive and alarming.
Indeed, the game’s enormous popularity has provoked anxieties in many quarters. A Medium post by Omari Akil published the day after the game was released calls the game “a death sentence” for black men, and police departments across the country have issued statements reminding players of the dangers posed by unchecked immersion in a semi-virtual reality.
On Tuesday morning, an NYPD spokesperson told Bushwick Daily that there is no department-wide public statement about the game (some precincts have tweeted about it—as has the Mayor’s office, in an announcement touting low crime rates.)
The man who remained in police custody on Friday evening was identified by the NYPD as Rashen Goggins, 41, of Bedford Stuyvesant. He was detained because he was “observed entering and remaining in” a city park and was found to have an active warrant.
Bushwick Daily was unable to find public reports of narcotics related illegal activity at Bartlett Playground.