On June 21, Chris Williams, the captain of the El Monte Police Department in California, sent an email to staff reminding them about anew incentivefor crime witnesses to share information with law enforcement. Rather than the cash reward used by some programs, El Monte gave out camera-equipped doorbells made by the home security company Ring, which retail starting at $99. “The Ring Home Security Camera system provides not only intelligence about suspect’s action and descriptions, but serves as a deterrent to crime,” Williams wrote, according to documents obtained in response to a public records request.
Earlier that year, El Monte had entered into an official partnership with Ring, which gives officers access to anonline platformwhere they can ask citizens for footage from their doorbell cameras that may be connected to a crime investigation. In exchange, police departmentspromotethe use of Ring’s cameras and its associated crime watch app,Neighbors. A few weeks after Williams sent out a reminder about the rewards program, a Ring employee emailed him with a congratulatory note: “Since EMPD first onboarded on 5/1, you have all increased your Neighbors app users (El Monte residents) by 1,058 users! Great job!”
While El Monte’s rewards program is fairly unique, the police department’s relationship with Ring isn’t. According to one memo uncovered by Gizmodo earlier this week, over225 other police departmentshave entered into contractual partnerships with the surveillance company, which was acquired by Amazon last year for over $800 million. Some departments have given out free or discounted Ring devices to the community, and many are subsidized using taxpayer money, according to reporting fromMotherboard. Ring says it didn’t pay for the doorbells given out in El Monte, and the police department did not return a request for comment.
Ring’s partnerships with law enforcement have come under growing scrutiny in recent months, as media reports have raised questions about theirlack of transparencyandpotential for privacy abuses. Ring argues that its products can drastically reduce crime in communities, but critics havequestioned the groundsfor those claims. Others accuse the Neighbors app, and similar apps like Citizen, of creating an ersatz surveillance state andstoking fearsat a time when crime rates are athistoric lows. The company’smotion-activated doorbellsmay capture innocent activities of people who live nearby, like someone walking down a public street. Earlier this week, the digital rights group Fight for the Future launched anew campaignasking citizens to demand their local police departments end their relationship with the company.