Lakeland police are happy to get home surveillance video to help solve crimes, Lakeland Police Department Chief Ruben Garcia said, but the department can’t and won’t endorse a particular brand of camera.
LPD was identified in a Vice article as one of many departments throughout the country that has signed an agreement with Amazon-owned Ring Inc., a manufacturer of doorbell cameras and other home automation and surveillance devices.
But LPD hasn’t strictly adhered to the memorandum of understanding, which if followed would put the department in the position to advocate the brand of home surveillance camera.
“We certainly encourage citizens to use products like that but not that particular product,” Garcia said of the cameras, which activate when movement is detected.
As part of the agreement, the company said it would provide LPD with 15 free Ring cameras to distribute to residents and would give the department access to its Ring Neighborhoods portal.
The portal allows the department to see information posted by residents to Ring’s Neighbors app, a popular “digital neighborhood watch” program that allows users to post videos recorded with their Ring cameras and remain anonymous to other users and police.
In exchange, LPD would “engage the Lakeland Community with outreach efforts to encourage adoption of the platform/app,” according to the agreement signed in December by former Police Chief Larry Giddens. Garcia was promoted to lead the department after Giddens’ retirement in February.
City Manager Tony Delgado, who was unaware of the agreement until contacted by a reporter Thursday, said the city is often asked to endorse products, like hot water heaters, but will not.
“We didn’t want the perception we were in the business of selling cameras. We’re in the business of making neighborhoods safer”
- Police Chief Ruben Garcia
So when the 15 Ring camera freebies arrived in March, they were sent back to the company, Garcia said. The department will also decline to participate in Ring’s offer to give the department a $10 credit toward the purchase of a new camera for every “qualified download” of the Neighbors app.
“We didn’t want the perception we were in the business of selling cameras. We’re in the business of making neighborhoods safer,” Garcia said.
The department received training on the Ring Neighborhoods portal, according to department emails provided to Vice, and continues to use the program as part of its social media outreach, Garcia said.
“Our participation is with the residents, not with the cameras,” Garcia said, adding that it is no different than the department’s use of other social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, to learn of crimes and develop leads.
Since signing the agreement, LPD has not sent out a press release or other public information about Ring or the Neighbors app. A review of its social media activity revealed no promotion of the cameras.
“We were not required to, nor have we ever encouraged the public to purchase a Ring device,” LPD spokeswoman Robin Tillett said in an email.
However, “Our Community Services unit does provide information on the Neighbors app at Neighborhood Meetings,” she added. “The app is free and open to anyone, regardless if they have any camera devices (by any manufacturer) or not. It is [a] community sharing platform that allows users to set an area for possible crime alerts.”
Inside the app
A review of the Neighbors app in areas surrounding Dixieland and Webster neighborhoods showed a limited amount of activity. There were several questions about unknown visitors, like a pair of women identified by an anonymous poster as Jehovah’s Witness missionaries, and seemingly homeless people knocking on doors or walking through yards at odd hours.
One visitor, shown in multiple videos, was said to say he represented Ring. Residents warned that he was likely a scammer.
Other videos showed people checking the doors of cars, presumably to see if they were locked.
When a clear crime has been committed or reported on the app, a representative from Ring encourages the poster to report the crime and give Ring the case number so it can give the video to LPD.
In some cases, a detective, identified by name, has used the app to reach out to the anonymous poster. According to statements made by Ring, and LPD, the Neighbors app posters are anonymous to police and other users unless they decide to pass their video on to the department.
“We can’t just access someone’s camera,” Garcia said. “We’re only seeing the footage they’re recording and sending to [the app].”
LPD has also used the app to send out crime alerts, like it did June 25 when a man was arrested and then escaped from custody in Dixieland. He was captured that evening.
The home surveillance videos have been most helpful in solving property crimes, Garcia said, but has also helped solve an armed robbery and some violent crime cases.
As tech evolves, privacy advocates warn of surveillance state
Privacy advocates have questioned the benefit of building, essentially, networks of suburban surveillance networks controlled by a small number of large technology firms like Amazon, which owns Ring, or Google, whose Nest subsidiary makes similar products.
[“Amazon’s helping police build a surveillance network with Ring doorbells,” CNET, June 5, 2019]
Some police departments participating in Ring program have required recipients of the free cameras to hand over recordings when requested, not just when offered by the resident.
Ring said it will crack down on this practice.
“Ring does not support programs that require recipients to subscribe to a recording plan or that footage from Ring devices be shared as a condition for receiving a donated device,” the company said in a statement reported by CNET. “We are actively working with partners to ensure this is reflected in their programs.”
Additional concerns are raised when these networks are combined with facial recognition technology. Advocates warn that it would give law enforcement agencies unprecedented levels surveillance even when no crime has been committed or reported.
“Amazon is dreaming of a dangerous future, with its technology at the center of a massive decentralized surveillance network, running real-time facial recognition on members of the public using cameras installed in people’s doorbells,” ACLU technology and privacy attorney Jacob Snow wrote.
Garcia said he isn’t worried about breaching privacy, as the department cannot get the videos unless provided by the owner. The department could also get a judge’s order to get the recording, but Garcia said that hasn’t been needed — people have been eager to help.
“I’ve never heard of anyone turning us down,” Garcia said, though most surveillance video is still in commercial and industrial areas, where 24/7 surveillance has been common for years.
And though the department checks social media, often videos are sent unsolicited by residents reaching out to the department, he added.
“It’s citizens taking ownership in their neighborhoods,” Garcia said. “We’re always looking to partner with anyone who can help us solve crime.”
Ring’s Memorandum of Understanding with LPD: