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News / Clark County News

Doorbell cameras increasingly popular but raise questions, ethical concerns

By Jerzy Shedlock, Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published: October 21, 2019, 6:00am
7 Photos
Matt Wiles shows off his Ring camera system at his home in east Vancouver on Wednesday. Wiles was an early adopter of the home camera system and purchased one right after they were released in 2013.
Matt Wiles shows off his Ring camera system at his home in east Vancouver on Wednesday. Wiles was an early adopter of the home camera system and purchased one right after they were released in 2013. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In the two instances that Dan Parsons’ video doorbell recorded crimes, the footage did not lead to his property being recovered or the culprits captured.

When Parsons lived in Northeast Portland, he said, someone walked up to his doorstep and ripped his Ring doorbell out of the wall. A few months ago in Salmon Creek, his new camera recorded a hooded woman breaking into his son’s car.

“It’s worked for me personally, for package delivery,” Parsons said. “But I submitted the video along with a police report each time (there was a crime), and nothing happened.”

Clark County law enforcement say the cameras have an impact on crime, but the devices are not a panacea for criminality.

Nationally, doorbell cameras’ effectiveness in deterring crime is not yet apparent. Additionally, there have been several ethical dilemmas raised by minority groups and police watchdogs as the cameras become more popular.

Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said the cameras can help solve crimes, depending on the images they capture. Detectives have used video footage in at least two recent major crime investigations. One was a residential burglary where the suspect tried to break in through the front door, and another was a domestic violence assault that showed the suspect chasing people with a knife, she said.

Footage is also being used in investigations of package thefts from porches, auto prowls and vandalism, Kapp said.

There are no statistics on how many doorbell cameras are in Vancouver, but the police department keeps information on various surveillance devices through its Community Camera Registration Program. (The program quietly relaunched in July, after the department added information on both the program’s main webpage and the registration page regarding submissions being subject to public disclosure under the Public Records Act.)

Kapp said it’s difficult to say whether there are more doorbell cameras, but it’s a safe assumption given their affordability and easy installation when compared with devices being sold as recently as five years ago. However, a crime may go unsolved despite having video or images, she said. The cameras are not a guarantee that a criminal will be dissuaded.

“We have all seen video of criminals committing crimes on camera, and it’s likely they know they are being filmed,” Kapp said.

In investigations, video tells only a part of the story, Clark County sheriff’s Sgt. Brent Waddell said. Evidence needs to be gathered; witnesses and victims need to be interviewed, he said.

Deputies used doorbell camera footage in an ongoing case to place a vehicular homicide suspect at the scene of the crime, Waddell said. This is a technique some but not all deputies use regularly when canvassing neighborhoods — they look for cameras, according to the sergeant.

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Several porch pirates have also been nabbed thanks to doorbell cameras, he said.

“Sometimes, you’re just trying to keep someone off your front porch or away from your front door, and in that way, I think it’s a deterrent,” Waddell said. “But you see porch thieves wearing hoodies and sunglasses. So, people should be aware that criminals are very adaptive, because that’s what keeps them in business, for lack of a better term.”

‘Questionable research’

Neither the police department nor sheriff’s office keeps data about the cameras’ effect on crime rates. Their observations are anecdotal. Nationally, there are no definitive statistics.

The most popular doorbell camera is Ring, which was bought by Amazon for $1 billion last year.

In announcing the acquisition, Amazon claimed a Los Angeles Police Department pilot program in 2015 found that the doorbells had reduced burglaries in neighborhoods by as much as 55 percent in seven months.

MIT Technology Review looked at public crime data and a previously unreported study to show the company’s evidence that the doorbells slash crime was far shakier than purported. For the Los Angeles police pilot program, the publication’s analysis of publicly available data found three city districts had year-on-year increases in burglaries during both the seven-month period detailed by Ring and the 10-month period reported by the police department, which showed a 21 percent decrease in burglaries.

Maria Cuellar, a statistician and assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, told MIT Technology Review she didn’t see the decrease Ring was claiming. A scientifically rigorous study would ideally involve more city districts, more doorbell cameras and a longer time period to allow any effects to play out.

Clayton Mosher, a professor at Washington State University Vancouver’s sociology department who focuses on criminology, said a key issue surrounding the devices is the involvement of big corporations such as Amazon in marketing them. The companies may be using “questionable ‘research’ to overstate their effectiveness and increase their profits,” he said.

“It is possible that the installation of doorbell cameras (or related technologies) may have a short-term impact on burglaries, but there are also displacement issues. People will still commit burglaries, and perhaps just go to different areas,” Mosher said.

Partnerships with police

Amazon’s dealings with police departments related to Ring have also been called into question.

Gizmodo reported in July that the home surveillance company has partnered with at least 225 law enforcement agencies nationwide. The relationship grants police access to an online platform used to acquire footage captured by Ring’s doorbell surveillance cameras. The footage can only be obtained with the permission of the device’s owner, who must also be a user of the company’s “neighborhood watch app,” called Neighbors.

One of Ring’s goals in its law enforcement partnerships is to encourage existing customers to download Neighbors, including providing departments with scripted responses to possible questions from the public. Ring has said the scripts are meant to be reference material for officers interacting with people on Neighbors; critics say all of the communications are designed to portray Ring in a positive light.

Waddell said the sheriff’s office has not been approached by Ring about a partnership. If it were, he said, the office would extensively examine the deal, partly because the state views personal rights on a tighter scope than the federal government.

Kapp said a Ring representative met with a few department staff members to provide information about Neighbors.

“No decision has been made (about) whether we will utilize this resource,” she said.

East Vancouver resident Matt Wiles said he primarily installed his Ring doorbell camera to ensure his daughter gets home safely from school. He also installed cameras at his vacation home in Ocean Shores, at the suggestion of local officers.

He said one of his main concerns about the device, however, is its connection to a for-profit business that may be using his images for unstated reasons.

Technology is ahead of the government’s attempts to regulate it, Mosher said. He is also concerned, he said, about who will have access to data from doorbell cameras and whether it will be linked to other data, especially law enforcement data, potentially violating people’s rights.

Neighbors app

That hasn’t stopped Wiles from using the technology, though.

Standing on the doorstep of his home Wednesday morning, he tapped through multiple camera feeds from his two homes, visible through the Neighbors app on his cellphone. He displayed videos shared by his neighbors in Ocean Shores — most were footage of bears.

Wiles said Neighbors shows the number of residents using the cameras in Ocean Shores has tripled in the last year. Most people share videos of animals or strangers in the neighborhoods.

Wiles checked the notifications on the app for a short time, he said, but quit, because most posts were about things he believed weren’t particularly concerning. He said people in Vancouver often claim they hear gunshots, but he’s not convinced that’s what’s happening.

Apps such as Nextdoor, Citizen and now Amazon’s Neighbors stir up fears around crime, which feeds into existing biases and racism and largely reinforces stereotypes around skin color, David Ewoldsen, professor of media and information at Michigan State University, told Vox.

Parsons, the Salmon Creek resident, said he turned off Neighbors a short time after getting his camera.

“I would get notifications about things going on in the neighborhood, but half of them were racist and the other half were like, ‘I’m sorry a stranger walked up to your door, but I don’t know how knowing about that helps me,’ ” Parsons said.

Columbian Breaking News Reporter