With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping many at home for work, school and recreation throughout the past year, the popularity of video doorbell systems like Amazon’s Ring has soared, with nearly 8 million doorbells sold globally in 2020. According to market research firm Strategy Analytics, the systems offer “a simple and effective way to minimize disruptions during the day and keep tabs on deliveries of goods.”
Many video doorbell users also leverage the systems for home security. Local law enforcement agencies have also gotten into the act, inking partnership deals with various providers and using the footage in investigations.
While local detectives express enthusiasm about adding the video footage captured by the cameras to their crime-fighting arsenal, they also note the limitations and privacy concerns of the technology.
Eyes on the street
Lt. Sean Aardema, who heads the Criminal Investigation Division at the Asheville Police Department, says he’s noticed a significant increase in the use of security cameras of all types during his nearly 22 years with the agency.
“I remember when I was a patrol officer, you would regularly go into businesses that had been broken into or robbed, and it was not at all uncommon that they would have no surveillance system whatsoever,” Aardema recalls. “And the ones that did, it was usually VHS tape that was not terribly great, because they would just use the same tape over and over again every day.”
Video surveillance technology has come a long way since then, with the latest products from Ring, Google Nest and more offering cloud-based data management and high-quality video footage that streams directly to a user’s smartphone. Aardema says the new user-friendly technologies, combined with lower costs, are driving increased uptake in residential settings.
Asked whether the systems actually reduce crime, however, Aardema says it’s difficult to know for sure.
He’d like to think that awareness of the growing prevalence of cameras serves as a deterrent, but notes that the APD usually only sees footage when “a crime has been committed on that property — so take from that what you will.”
APD spokesperson Christina Hallingse adds that while APD doesn’t have the numbers to show whether security cameras deter crime, they do “help with people’s sense of security.”
The cameras can aid officers in investigations after crimes are committed, Aardema says. He cites a string of 2019 package thefts as an example in which video footage, provided by multiple residents, led to the identification and arrest of a suspect. “She would wait until [United Parcel Service] or someone would make a delivery and she would come up and steal the packages,” he recalls. “And we were able to identify her by using residential surveillance.”
But crystal-clear images don’t always result in the recovery of stolen belongings or the identification of wrongdoers.
“There’s limitations to any surveillance system that you buy,” Aardema says. “It’s hugely beneficial to corroborate that a crime did happen. Occasionally, it does capture a pretty good image of the suspect’s face, which is absolutely helpful to us, especially if we have no more leads as to their identity.
“But it’s not always a guarantee that a crime is going to be solved just because there’s surveillance of it,” Aardema warns.
Police departments can choose to work directly with companies that manage surveillance camera systems.
In 2018, Ring launched its Neighbors app, which enables camera users to share information about safety concerns, suspicious behavior and other information. The app also allows participating law enforcement agencies to push emergency information out to users and provides a direct feed of public user activity to connected police departments.
Across the country, more than 1,800 police departments and 347 fire departments had entered into partnerships with Ring as of May 13, including the Woodfin Police Department, which joined in January 2020, and the Hendersonville Police Department, which joined in November.
“We began using the Ring’s Neighbors Public Safety Service to offer the community another method of engaging with our team in addition to the options already offered, [such as] calling the dispatch phone number, email, website, social media, HPD app,” says Lt. Bruce Darrah of the Hendersonville Police Department. “The department can post photos and videos on the app when investigators are attempting to locate or identify suspects. Information like crime prevention tips, safety events and other information can be shared with the public. The reverse is also true that community members can share crime information with our detectives.”
Darrah explains that the video footage his department receives is provided voluntarily by app users — not Ring. When a Neighbors user shares a video of something suspicious caught on camera, investigators see it. And when investigators are looking for leads in a certain place at a certain time, he continues, the app requests footage from users who were on the spot. However, users are under no obligation to respond, and police don’t know which users received the request.
So far, community feedback to HPD’s presence on the Neighbors app has been positive, Darrah says, and the department has identified suspects and brought charges that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
While the APD had planned to enter into a similar partnership with Ring — and Chief David Zack used the same arrangement at his previous department in Cheektowaga, N.Y. — the department recently learned of a different approach that doesn’t favor one technology provider over others, Hallingse says.
“During those initial conversations, our evidence management system (Axon) began offering the ability for community members to upload footage from any platform directly into our system, through a link … provided by an officer. This existing system is already accessible to officers and provides APD with the capability to accept any footage, rather than only brand-specific footage (Ring),” she explains.
For his part, Aardema acknowledges the potential for privacy concerns.
“If [people] feel comfortable sharing footage to help solve a crime in their neighborhood, we absolutely would appreciate that and would encourage them to do so,” he says. “But we also appreciate concerns people may have regarding us seeking wholesale data collection in the name of public safety.”
Neighbor to neighbor
While sharing video footage among neighbors may be the modern-day neighborhood watch, Hendersonville’s Durrah notes that there are downsides. His department uses video footage in investigations, but detectives recognize that suspects may be misidentified by residents viewing the images.
“Especially with low-quality videos or pictures, of course some tips we receive are off the mark,” Durrah says. “It’s important to realize that getting a name from a member of the community does not end an investigation. Any lead developed in this way is further investigated and is either corroborated or invalidated.”
Aardema adds that video footage could introduce problems into the eventual prosecution of a crime.
“If we’re able to identify the suspect with actual evidence, and there’s basically a social media page where you’ve got a lot of other people saying that ‘No, it’s this other person,’ that could be problematic to the case,” he explains. “But at the same time, it’s their footage, and at the end of the day, they’re entitled to do with it what they will.”
Durrah says residents should also take proactive steps to help secure their homes and vehicles by locking doors and windows, hiding valuable items and keeping landscaping maintained — all free or inexpensive ways to improve security.
West Asheville resident Brandi Harvey recently had her own experience sharing Ring video footage as part of a crime report to the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department.
While she was away from home on the morning of April 15, Harvey’s Ring app alerted her to motion. She watched as a stranger entered and passed through different rooms. All the while, her son worked on a computer in a back bedroom, unaware that he wasn’t alone.
The visitor exited without taking any items or doing any damage, but the incident left Harvey with a lingering sense of alarm. She posted the video footage with the intruder’s face clearly visible on social media, where it sparked an active discussion.
After weeks of investigation, Harvey says that officers determined that the incident was a misunderstanding rather than a home invasion.
Still, Harvey says she’s planning to beef up her surveillance system in light of the scare.
“Since then, I’ve installed a camera on my fence line in the back. And I’m about to put another one in,” she says.
The Neighbors app and other social media sites create heightened awareness of crime in her area, and that doesn’t necessarily make Harvey feel more safe. But unlike her neighbors who do not use cameras, she’d rather be aware than caught off guard.
“Ignorance is bliss, you know?” Harvey says.