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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
“The public is so infatuated with TV crime dramas that they all fancy themselves as detectives. Doorbell cameras give them the ability to feel like they are helping law enforcement solve crimes, making their communities safer themselves, and to a certain extent they are,” says Officer Charles McPhilamy of the Marietta (Georgia) Police Department (MPD). Officer McPhilamy is commenting on a growing national phenomenon: collaboration between local residents and their police departments through doorbell camera networks. It’s a development which is improving law enforcement’s ability to investigate and respond to crime while saving individual departments’ time, money, and resources.
The cameras monitor front doors and other areas close to the home, recording and saving audio and video of anyone who sets off the device’s motion detector. In addition to capturing footage of “porch pirates” stealing packages, these cameras have provided police with evidence related to kidnappings, car theft, and assaults.
Realizing that they can save time in identifying suspects and solving crimes, some departments are subsidizing the purchase of the cameras, or even providing them at no cost to property owners.
Ring, a camera system owned by Amazon, offers discounts to agencies, which provide them to local residents free or at a reduced price. Those who get the cameras can post alerts about suspicious activity on Ring’s Neighbor portal, which the officers can also access to view the alerts, request footage, and post information about local crime and safety. Police can also request information such as license plate numbers and suspect descriptions.
According to the latest statistics reported by the Washington Post in November 2019, more than 600 law enforcement departments had partnered with Ring to develop networks of doorbell camera owners. The City of Milwaukee, which has been using surveillance cameras on public property for years, is an example. Now two business improvement districts and a separate business association are partnering with the Milwaukee Police Department to expand their surveillance network by providing free and discounted cameras to residents.
Other agencies are setting up networks with current camera owners. According to Officer McPhilamy, the MPD requested participation in their program, called SMILE (System In Marietta Intersecting with Law Enforcement), on the department’s web site, in press releases to local news outlets, and in person at community meetings. “We said that if there were a crime in their neighborhood, we would email or call participants in that area to ask if we could look at their footage. If they agreed, they could send it to us via an app developed by their camera company. “
MPD built a sign-up link that people could fill out, then an interactive map containing the addresses and contact information of all who did. If a crime has been committed in or near a particular neighborhood, they hover over the area on the map to see who has cameras, then call or email to ask if the owners would send the video file from that time frame. Says McPhilamy, “In addition to saving detectives time, this system allows the owners to maintain their privacy. Only they have access to the video, and they don’t have to give it to us. It’s voluntary.”
Travis Martinez, Deputy Chief of Police in the Redlands (California) Police Department, which has a camera network, emphasizes the fact that the department doesn’t have access to the cameras. “We just know who has one and can ask for footage. We get alerts about suspicious activity, but don’t monitor the network or see the video unless the owner sends it to us or posts it on the Neighbor portal.”
According to McPhilamy, the voluntary nature of participation is one reason that there has been no pushback from the community. And overall, there is a lot of support for it. “Residents feel safer,” says Martinez. “The cameras can deter crimes as well as help us respond.”
It also gives homeowners a way to fight package theft, which accounts for 1.7 million packages stolen or lost every day in the U.S., according to researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. And anecdotal evidence from departments that have created camera networks indicates that their neighborhoods have significantly reduced theft and burglary.
According to Martinez, in one upscale area of Redlands County, the high incidence of burglary has been reduced by 55 percent. His department has gotten leads on car thieves as well. And in Westminster, Colorado, responses to a request for footage enabled a detective to arrest two suspects and recover weapons stolen in a burglary. The Albemarle County (Virginia) Police Department (ACPD) also solved a burglary case with the help of footage provided by the victim, who had also been assaulted. And in Marietta, the MPD solved two missing child cases with video from doorbell cameras.
Because participation in these camera networks is voluntary, there is little to no potential liability for police department. However the footage, like all evidence, must be properly obtained with permission to use it or a warrant to be admissible in court.
And general privacy laws do apply to homeowners. Though roads, sidewalks, and other public property are okay to monitor, owners must not aim their cameras at neighbor’s homes or backyards. Moreover, the audio captured on the phone many be subject to state laws that require consent to being recorded. It’s a good idea to let people know they are under surveillance by posting a small sign, which could also deter a potential thief.
Security cameras can also be hacked, allowing the hacker to get control of the footage. Camera owners need to update their software or use unique passwords.
This isn’t old fashioned patrolling, says McPhilamy, noting that use of digital camera networks has made a change in the way his department polices. “We no longer have to waste time walking up and down the street looking for cameras and ringing doorbells. Seventy percent of the time, nobody’s home anyway, and then there’s no way to contact them. Through our database, we have phone numbers and email addresses.”
In effect, this network also gives a law enforcement agency a larger surveillance system without having to build it themselves, saving the time and money involved in purchasing cameras, locating public property where electrical connections are available, setting the cameras up, and monitoring them.
Another big benefit to law enforcement is the increase in community engagement and the quality of their relationships with residents. Residents and business owners like having the opportunity to partner with their police to solve crimes and bring those who have committed them to justice. Said ACPD Chief of Police Ron Lantz, "We are proud to find yet another way to engage with our community to make Albemarle County safer."
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