Tech by VICE

Police Promised Witnesses Free Ring Surveillance Cameras If They Testified Against Neighbors

The police department of El Monte, CA started a “Ring Reward Program” about a month before it entered a partnership with Ring.

by Caroline Haskins
Aug 15 2019, 6:13pm

Image: Excerpt of an El Monte Police Department flyer obtained by Motherboard. Ring doorbell from Wikimedia Commons.

The police department of El Monte, California, paid for 20 Ring home surveillance cameras with taxpayer money and planned to distribute them to residents who reported crime and promised to testify against them in court, according to documents obtained by Motherboard.

The documents, which were obtained via public records request, show that the police department started a “Ring Reward Program” in early February, about a month before it officially began a partnership with Ring.

An El Monte Police Department officer told Motherboard in a phone call that the department purchased 20 Ring cameras from Home Depot, but none of them have been given out because there have been no eligible crime tips. They said the department did this of its own volition, and not in concert with Ring. Ring told Motherboard in an email that the company has never encouraged law enforcement agencies to start Ring Reward Programs like the one started in El Monte.

In order to be eligible to receive a free Ring doorbell camera, a resident must provide “descriptive knowledge of a suspect seen committing a burglary to a residence in El Monte” that goes beyond “a generic description of only sex and race.” The resident must also “be willing to testify” about the suspect in court.

“Whenever possible, the Ring doorbell camera will be presented to witness within two work days,” the Program Adjustment announcement says.

Excerpt of the “RING REWARD PROGRAM” document obtained by Motherboard
Image: Excerpt of the “RING REWARD PROGRAM” document obtained by Motherboard.

An El Monte Police Department officer told Motherboard that the police department had been aware of Ring partnerships with law enforcement and had been attempting to arrange one since late last year.

Ring partnerships involve the company giving police access to the “Law Enforcement Neighborhoods Portal.” The portal is an interactive map that police can use to request Ring camera footage from anyone in their community. Camera owners need to give police permission for them to obtain footage, but police don’t need a warrant to request footage from owners. In exchange, police departments have to promote Ring products either implicitly or explicitly. Researcher Shreyas Gandlur found that at least 231 police departments around the country have partnered with Ring.

An El Monte Police Department officer told Motherboard in a phone call that the Ring Reward Program was intended to be a way to respond to increased burglaries and property thefts in the city and the state.

“This Ring app and Ring device came up as a way that the community talked about, and we talked about it as something that helps deter crime,” the officer said.

Chris Gilliard, a professor of English at Macomb Community College who studies digital redlining and discriminatory practices enabled by data mining, said in a phone call that he thinks it’s troubling that police would endorse a product without upfront empirical evidence that it reduces or deters crime. He compared the program to a “bounty” program.

“There's an irony which is that you're asking people to solve crimes, and you're giving them a device that's supposed to help them solve crime,” Gilliard said.

An El Monte Police Department officer told Motherboard in a phone call that burglaries and property crimes have decreased in the months since the department began its partnership with Ring. Similar anecdotal evidence has been presented in Los Angeles. However, it's unclear whether the Ring partnership specifically played any role in the crime reduction.

A document obtained by Motherboard shows that the El Monte Police Department reallocated $1,975.50 from an “Illegal Fireworks Reward Program” to a “Burglary Prevention Reward Program.” The money, which had not been used since 2015, was used to pay for 20 Ring doorbell cameras.

Excerpt of the “Program Adjustment” announcement obtained by Motherboard.
Image: Excerpt of the “Program Adjustment” announcement obtained by Motherboard.

A document titled “RING REWARD PROGRAM” says that the El Monte Police Department will use its official social media to talk about the program.

“Social media outreach will be used to highlight [the] success of the program, but recipients are not required to have their name or image shared with the public via social media,” the document says.

According to a memorandum of understanding with Ring signed by the El Monte Police Department, all of the department’s public statements about Ring are approved by the company first. This is typical feature of Ring partnerships with police.

Emails obtained by Motherboard, which were previously published and written about by Wired, show that Ring gave the El Monte Police Department a series of scripts which dictate how police are supposed to talk about the company.

As reported by Wired, Ring congratulated the El Monte Police Department on increasing the number of Neighbors users in their town by 1,058. “Great job!” the Ring representative says.

Ring nominated the El Monte Police Department for Ring’s “Agency of the Year Award,” according to new emails obtained by Motherboard. One email from a Ring representative, dated July 2019, asks the police department to submit “a success story” that resulted from using the Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal.

According to a Ring “Success Story Sheet,” which Motherboard obtained from the police department of Addison, IL, a Ring “success story” is an arrest that results from footage that is captured on a Ring camera and shared with police.

The El Monte Police Department was also invited to a party hosted by retired basketball player Shaquille O’Neal and the Ring team. O’Neal has been a Ring celebrity spokesperson since 2015. The event invitation, which was obtained by Motherboard, advertises “an open bar, free food and more.”

“Attendees will take home a gift of five free Ring Doorbells for the department and the community!” the invitation says.

Event invitation obtained by Motherboard.
Image: Event invitation obtained by Motherboard.

All of the documents that informed this story are now public and viewable on Document Cloud.

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