Janesville police began a partnership with the Ring-brand video doorbell company last month.
It’s a move that has raised questions elsewhere around the country, including from those concerned about privacy and racial profiling.
Police will now be able to send messages to Ring users, asking them for videos when crimes occur near their homes, and residents can help police solve crimes by uploading their videos in Ring’s app, called Neighbors.
Police also will be able to send messages to Ring users in general and to specific users who have posted videos of interest.
Critics elsewhere have said such partnerships have potential to invade privacy, and they could encourage people to inject more racial bias in crime reporting.
Deputy Chief Terry Sheridan noted police will not be able to access residents’ videos without their permission or view the live video feeds that Ring customers can see of people who come to their doors.
And, people can submit videos to police anonymously, as they can through a CrimeStoppers tip or the P3 Tips app.
However, in rare cases, police might obtain court orders to obtain videos if needed to prove a case in court, Sheridan said.
“It seems to me they (Ring) have built in a whole lot of safeguards to protect their customers’ privacy and only make that (video) available to law enforcement if that customer chooses to do it,” Sheridan said.
As for racial bias, Sheridan said police do get that kind of call occasionally.
Janesville police are trained to question reports of suspicious persons when the only thing suspicious is the person’s race.
“Most of the time, we’re probably not going to respond,” to such a call with no additional information, Sheridan said.
The officer would call for more information, but lacking specifics, there would be no response, Sheridan said.
“We train to try and recognize these kinds of calls,” Sheridan said. “We certainly don’t want to expose somebody to danger just because we didn’t show up, but at same time we have to try to be sure we don’t fall into somebody else’s bias.”
More than 400 police departments nationwide have formed similar connections with Ring, according to news reports.
Janesville police got involved after a retired Wisconsin police chief who now works for Ring reached out to Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore, Sheridan said.
Ring offers no financial incentive for police to sign up, Sheridan said. Ring occasionally makes contributions, and police recently asked for a Ring video doorbell, which police gave away at a CrimeStoppers run.
Critics also say Ring plays on people’s fears. Crime is on a long-term downward trend in Janesville, as it is nationwide. Janesville’s 2018 crime rate was the second-lowest in 20 years.
“It really has nothing to do with any increase in crime or anything like that,” Sheridan said. “We see it as just another tool that we can use to help solve crimes in town.”
Sheridan said Ring won’t tell police how many Ring users live in Janesville.
“It all has to do with the privacy of the Ring users, which I get,” Sheridan said.
“We don’t know who has cameras unless we go to their house and see a Ring camera, and we don’t have access to anybody’s video unless they give it to us,” Sheridan said.
Police will see videos that people voluntarily upload to the Neighbors app in Janesville, just as all other users can do.
Police will be able to select an area of the city where video might show evidence of a crime and make requests for video only from homes in that area for a specific timeframe. Ring relays the request to its customers, and police have no idea who it’s going to, Sheridan said.
Police always have knocked on doors in the area where a crime has occurred, Sheridan said, and that won’t stop because of this new tool.
And police still will issue requests for help on its Nixle app, which is picked up by news media, because lots of houses and other buildings have surveillance cameras that are not Ring.
Ring certainly seems popular. A video of a man walking up a west-side driveway for no apparent reason overnight Thursday got 442 views on the Neighbors app by the afternoon.
Not all those viewers had to be owners of a Ring doorbell, however. The company allows anyone to download the app and see everything posted within a certain radius of their home.
“We kind of like it,” Janesville retiree Joyce Little said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a real protector or anything, but it shows us who’s been at our door, and it doesn’t matter if we’re home or not. It’ll come over our telephone if we’ve had anyone at our door.”
Police have the ability to monitor the Neighbors app activity in Janesville only, Sheridan said. If police were interested in something that happened in a neighboring jurisdiction, they could not request video from those residents.
Sheridan did not know of any nearby police departments that have established a similar relationship with Ring.
Police have the ability to focus on patrol areas in the city, so officers in a particular zone will be able to see residents’ Ring alerts only from that area. Police also will be able to see alerts from the entire city but not from outside city limits, Sheridan said.