Houston Police See Ring App as a Valuable Communications Tool

The police department is one of several to partner with the home surveillance company’s smartphone application, which allows them to push real-time crime information to users.

by St. John Barned-Smith, Houston Chronicle / January 15, 2019
Shutterstock/Alexander Kirch

(TNS) — The Houston Police Department announced Monday that it is joining Ring’s mobile app, Neighbors, in a move officials hope will reduce crime and improve safety in neighborhoods across the city, even as department officials complain of low staffing levels.

The HPD partnership with Ring, a rapidly growing home surveillance company that sells video doorbells and similar products, would help the police department communicate more effectively in real time with residents as crimes occur, Houston Police Burglary and Theft Division Commander Glenn Yorek said.

“HPD will be able to send alerts to neighbors of crime and safety incidents in real time, request information about local crime and safety from neighbors who opt in to sharing for a particular request, and work with the local community to build trust and to make the community safer,” Yorek said, announcing the partnership at the department’s downtown headquarters Monday morning.

The joint venture is the latest for Ring, a seven-year-old tech startup purchased by Amazon for more than $1 billion in February that has grown exponentially in recent years even as it has weathered criticism over its privacy practices and disputes over claims that its products reduce crime.

The company sells doorbells equipped with digital cameras that link to owners’ smartphones. Video captured by the devices of porch pirates and package thieves are popular online.

Tens of thousands of Ring devices — with hundreds of thousands of app users — operate across the Houston region, but officials would not provide specific numbers about how many are in Houston.

The app, available on Android and Apple devices, provides residents with information on local crime within a five-mile radius of where they live. Residents can view videos shared by other app users and communicate with each other via text-based messages.

Neighbors General Manager Eric Kuhn said HPD was the largest law enforcement agency the company has partnered with yet, though Ring has similar partnerships with 16 other police departments and sheriff’s offices in Texas.

The company has partnerships with numerous other departments across the nation, including across much of Florida and in Los Angeles, where Ring boasted of reducing burglaries in one neighborhood in 2015 by 55 percent over a six-month period.

“We strongly believe when communities and law enforcement come together and work together, you can not only reduce crime, but you can build much better, safer places to live,” Kuhn said.

Mixed results

Criminologists and government officials, however, have raised questions about the impact Ring’s cameras actually have on reducing crime.

An article in MIT Technology Review reviewed Ring’s findings in the Los Angeles neighborhood and found that burglaries in subsequent years rose to levels higher than in any of the previous seven years.

And In West Valley City, Utah, officials performed a test in two neighborhoods of similar size and levels of crime. Both neighborhoods saw a drop in crime, according to the MIT Technology Review story, but the results were surprising: the neighborhood without the devices saw a more significant drop.

Maria Cuellar, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said there is not sufficient evidence to say whether Ring devices really reduce crime.

Ring’s study in Los Angeles was problematic because it relied on small sample sizes, Cuellar said, adding that a properly designed study, or more data and analysis, is needed to tell if Ring cameras are really effective at reducing crime.

‘All the help we can get’

Houston police officials said the partnership would provide better understanding of activity playing out in neighborhoods in real time, even as they repeated past complaints of low staffing levels.

“We need all the help we can get to understand what’s going on with crime, where it is, and how we can address it,” said Diana Poor, HPD’s deputy director of planning.

Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi said he hoped the partnership would act as a “force multiplier” for HPD.

“Considering the limited resources we have, and the fact we’re 1,500 officers short, we’re open to any idea that can reduce crime in our communities,” he said.

Ring’s partnership with HPD comes as one of the region’s other largest law enforcement agencies, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, decided against a similar arrangement.

Harris County had originally agreed to a partnership with Ring in June — shortly after the company launched the Neighbors platform — but pulled out of the deal over concerns about residents’ privacy and other issues.

HCSO Spokesman Jason Spencer said at the time the HCSO rarely partners with for-profit companies because the department wants to avoid the impression it is endorsing a particular product or business. He also questioned how much of a benefit a partnership with Ring would be, saying the majority of residents whom deputies ask to share surveillance footage comply. The department also can seek search warrants to secure access to cameras that may have captured video.

Privacy questions

As Ring has grown, it also has weathered criticism over its handling of consumer privacy. According to a recent report in The Intercept, Ring gave U.S.-based executives and engineers highly privileged access to the company’s technical support video portal, allowing unfiltered, round-the-clock live feeds from some customer cameras, regardless of whether they needed access to that data to do their jobs.

At Monday’s news conference, Kuhn said company employees “don’t have access to private videos.”

When asked by the Houston Chronicle about the discrepancy Monday, a Ring spokeswoman also disputed the Intercept’s story.

“We take the privacy and security of our customers’ personal information extremely seriously,” the company said in a written statement. “In order to improve our service, we view and annotate certain Ring video recordings. These recordings are sourced exclusively from publicly shared Ring videos from the Neighbors app (in accordance with our terms of service), and from a small fraction of Ring users who have provided their explicit written consent to allow us to access and utilize their videos for such purposes. Ring employees do not have access to livestreams from Ring products….

“We hold our team members to a high ethical standard and anyone in violation of our policies faces discipline, including termination and potential legal and criminal penalties. In addition, we have zero tolerance for abuse of our systems and if we find bad actors who have engaged in this behavior, we will take swift action against them.”

Online, users of the Neighbors app had other observations.

“In my area, the videos are mostly porch pirates,” wrote one user identified only as “Garbanzito,” in a review left online. “But also a few innocent-looking trashpickers and even someone looking for their AirBnB at a wrong address; along with the captions and comments, i think you learn more about your neighbors than you do about crime in the area.”

©2019 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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