For Amazon, fear is good for business.
If customers fear their neighbors, and fear they might steal a package, customers are less likely to be mad at Amazon if they don’t get a package they ordered. They’re also more likely to buy an Amazon-owned Ring doorbell camera, which is marketed as way of surveilling your stoop for package deliveries and package thieves—especially on Neighbors, the Ring-owned “neighborhood watch” app.
New documents obtained by Motherboard using a Freedom of Information request show how Amazon, Ring, a GPS tracking company, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service collaborated on a package sting operation with the Aurora, Colorado Police Department in December. The operation involved equipping fake Amazon packages with GPS trackers, and surveilling doorsteps with Ring doorbell cameras in an effort to catch someone stealing a package on tape.
The documents show the design and implementation of a highly elaborate public relations stunt, which was designed both to endear Amazon and Ring with local law enforcement, and to make local residents fear the place they live. The parties were disappointed when the operation didn’t result in any arrests.
The Aurora Police Department received 25 Amazon boxes, Amazon-branded tape, and Amazon lithium ion stickers as a part of the operation. It also received 15 Ring doorbell cameras and 15 GL300W GPS trackers from 7P Solutions. “Operation Grinch Grab,” as it was called internally, involved seven Aurora zip codes. These companies spent days with the Aurora Police Department preparing them for the operation, and discussing local news coverage and rewriting press releases.
“As of now, we have not yielded any arrests,” Aurora Police Department captain Matthew Wells-Longshore wrote in an email on December 19. “I’m not sure if I should be happy or sad about that! Ha. Maybe happy that no one in the areas we are in are victims of package theft but sad that we won't be able to showcase an arrest.”
Wells-Longshore added that “there probably won’t be any footage of an actual arrest.” Morgan Culbertson, Public Relations Coordinator for Neighbors, the free “neighborhood watch” app developed by Ring, responded to Wells-Longshore a few minutes later.
“Unfortunate that none were apprehended this time around but I am sure your community will appreciate that Aurora PD is being so proactive on their behalf,” Culbertson said.
Motherboard previously published documents describing a similar operation in Hayward, California. The police departments of Albuquerque, New Mexico and Jersey City, New Jersey have also conducted comparable package theft sting operations.
An employee of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the federal law enforcement branch of the USPS, was copied on several emails related to the operation, and a USPIS logo was included on an Aurora Police Department press release. Eric Manuel, the USPIS employee copied on the emails, said that the USPIS provided support to the operation.
“USPIS contributed to the sting operation on December 19, 2018 by providing Postal Inspectors in unmarked law enforcement vehicles to assist with surveillance of the dummy packages placed in neighborhoods in southeast Aurora,” Manuel told Motherboard. “Postal Inspectors were prepared to provide investigative assistance to APD in the event a package theft suspect was identified and was in possession of stolen U.S. mail.”
Emails also shed light on a closely-coordinated public relations campaign involving Amazon, Ring, 7P Solutions, and the Aurora Police Department. Representatives from all parties coordinated the timing and content of Facebook posts and press releases.
“We want to do a big P.R. push on this too,” Captain Redfearn wrote to representatives from Amazon, Ring, and 7P Solutions, “so I will give our [public information officer] office Morgan’s email to network about press/coverage.”
An email from Ring/Neighbors public relations coordinator Culbertson on December 17 asks the police department to make several changes to the Aurora Police Department’s planned press release, including removing the Amazon logo and changing the operation name. The Aurora Police Department complied with all of the requests.
The emails and documents also reveal details about the delivery of the Amazon-branded packages, tape, and stickers, the operation “training” session organized by 7P Solutions, and public relations-related requests from Amazon during the operation.
Emails reveal that Amazon requested Aurora Police Department members to come to their office to pick up Amazon-branded packages, tape, and stickers, but Amazon representatives ultimately came to the Aurora Police Department offices directly.
An email exchange shows that the Aurora Police Department was considering using doorbell footage from private citizens that purchased Ring doorbells for their homes. As reported by the Intercept, Ring gives local police departments the ability to obtain a neighborhood portal for cops which displays a neighborhood map. The map can display footage from doorbell cameras, if the owners of the doorbell cameras give the police department permission.
“Quick question.. for the Ring doorbells if we have someone’s home we want to use and they already have a Ring doorbell can we use the existing one or do we still need to install one of the new Rings you are sending?” Aurora Police Night Duty Captain Redfearn asked five Amazon representatives in an email on December 14, five days before the operation.
“Yours to do what you will sir,” Gibson from Amazon’s Logistics Loss Prevention team replied.
When reached by Motherboard for comment, officer Wells-Longshore said that the Aurora Police Department does not have access to a Ring law enforcement neighborhood portal, but they asked residents for Ring doorbell footage access, and offered to give some residents free Ring cameras.
“Local resident volunteers were given the option to receive a donated Ring device or use their existing system in the hopes that helpful footage captured would be shared with our department,” Wells-Longshore said.
“The short term goal is an arrest but the long term is educating the community about package thefts and taking a proactive approach to reducing crimes thereby improving overall safety,” he continued. “As we work to reduce crime, apprehending criminals is part of the process but making arrests is not our primary goal. By inviting media to publicize the operation, we hope to deter what would be package thief’s and further educate the public on these types of crimes.”
Emails and Google Calendar invitations indicate that representatives from Amazon and 7P Solutions also trained Aurora Police Department members prior to the launch of the operation.
The Google Calendar invitation—which was titled “Aurora CO Training / Amazon”—was organized by Matt Clark from 7P Solutions, and it was sent to three representatives from the Aurora Police Department. It took place on Tuesday December 18, one day before the sting operation.
When reached for comment, a 7P Solutions representative said, “Any comments would be through Amazon.”
“We appreciate the effort by local law enforcement to tackle package theft in their communities, and we remain committed to assisting them in their efforts however we can,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an email.
"In support of the Aurora Police Department's efforts to educate the community, we provided feedback on their press release to ensure our company and product were accurately represented," a Ring spokesperson said in an email. “As we continue on our mission to make neighborhoods safer, we support law enforcement’s efforts to educate the community and prevent instances of crimes like package theft."
As reported by Motherboard earlier this year, the free Ring-associated “neighborhood watch” app Neighbors has a deeply-rooted problem with racial profiling. Posts on neighbors have resulted in at least one and most likely several arrests. Earlier this month, a Ring Facebook ad showed footage of a woman suspected of a crime and asked users to identify her.
Amazon has also been fostering a relationship with law enforcement through the promotion of Rekognition, a real-time facial recognition software that’s relatively inexpensive. San Francisco, California and Somerville, Massachusetts have both banned facial recognition from their cities, citing concerns about the safety and accuracy of the software.
These package theft sting operations show that Amazon and Ring are also engaging in intimate working relationships with specific police departments, and organizing the set-up of individual operations.
All of the documents obtained by Motherboard for this story are public and viewable on DocumentCloud.