Panama City Beach, Fla., Police Chief Drew Whitman has said that he wants to use all of the latest technology to catch criminals, but not if that comes at the cost of residents' constitutional rights.
(TNS) — Panama City Beach, Fla., Police Chief Drew Whitman wants to use the latest technology to catch crooks, but not at the cost of residents' constitutional rights.
His police department was among the first in Florida to partner a year ago with Ring, a national doorbell-camera company owned by Amazon, for video-sharing services. The company recently revealed it has grown those partnerships with more than 400 police departments, including the Panama City Police Department. And while some watchdog groups have expressed concern about growing surveillance and reduced privacy, local police departments say their access to residents' footage is limited at best.
"This misconception is that people think we have access to the camera system," Whitman said. "We do not ... nor do we want it."
Currently, the PCB and Panama City Police Departments are the only law enforcement agencies from Bay County, Fla., that have partnerships with Ring. The nearby Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Police Department also participates in the program.
Ring sells doorbells with cameras that record motion in front of them or anyone who interacts with the device. Owners can then view the footage whenever they want through an app on their smartphones. The company, started in 2013 and based in Santa Monica, Calif., has grown into one of the nation's biggest household names in home security.
Users can also share footage to Ring's public social network, Neighbors, to report local crimes and discuss suspicious activity. The users are anonymous on the app, but the video does not obscure faces or voices from anyone recorded on camera.
Some advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have expressed concerns that the company's increased partnerships with police departments could be precursors to more invasive surveillance.
Panama City Police Chief Scott Ervin said his department joined with Ring a month ago and his officers' access to residents' footage is extremely limited.
"We don't have any access to the system," Ervin said. "We can't open up their cameras and view anything. We don't even know where the cameras are at."
Ervin said that instead, if a crime is committed in a neighborhood, his department sends a message out through the Ring system's social media network, asking for any residents living in that neighborhood to volunteer their camera footage.
"They can send that video through their account," Ervin said. "It's not a Big Brother situation where we can tap into stuff."
Whitman added that through the partnership, his department can also send Ring an address where a crime has been committed and have the company send a message to nearby customers if they have footage they'd like to share with the police.
Whitman noted that he has a Ring doorbell at his own home and he still has limited access to the footage.
"I can't pull it up at the police department," he said.
The technology hasn't been a groundbreaking piece of surveillance technology for the police, but it has helped the department solve some cases, Whitman said.
"It's been a good tool ... we use it every once in a while," Whitman said.
Ervin said the system has helped his department with a few cases even though the department has only used it for about a month.
"We've had a citizen provide footage to us on a stolen car," he said.
©2019 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.