California Police Officers Are Handing Out Free Doorbell Cameras In Exchange For Testimony In Court

Snitches no longer get stitches. In the year of our lord two-thousand-nineteen, snitches get street surveillance gear from Amazon.

Amazon’s Ring doorbell — which sports a handy camera to catch all those package thieves — has swallowed up more than 200 police departments with its charm offensive. Cops get doorbell cams at a discount and hand them out for free to locals with the assumption residents will repay the favor by granting officers warrant-free access to footage any time they ask.

To decrease friction, Ring — which has final edit approval on police publicity efforts — nudges people towards its snitch app, Neighbors, which encourages users to post any suspicious footage they capture. Ring also nudges law enforcement towards more social media interaction with Ring users to blur the line between sharing with neighbors and sharing with government employees.

The push continues. Amazon sees a market worth cornering and cops see a handy way to turn multiple doorsteps into extensions of their existing surveillance network. Win-win for all involved, I guess, except those who want to secure their homes without feeling obligated to hand over footage whenever the government thinks it might be helpful.

The advantages for law enforcement are obvious. And that has led to more… um… proactive efforts by law enforcement to spread the good word about these doorbell cameras. Louise Matsakis reports for Wired that a California law enforcement agency recently offered Ring doorbells to citizens in exchange for some help with their cop work.

On June 21, Chris Williams, the captain of the El Monte Police Department in California, sent an email to staff reminding them about a new incentive for crime witnesses to share information with law enforcement. Rather than the cash reward used by some programs, El Monte gave out camera-equipped doorbells made by the home security company Ring, which retail starting at $ 99.

The asking price for a “free” $ 99 camera seems to be a bit steep. According to documents obtained by Caroline Haskins of Motherboard, the El Monte PD isn’t interested in vague tips about somebody seeing somebody do something. This may be acceptable for confidential informants, but potential camera “winners” have a higher bar to hurdle. The tips must be specific, result in a prosecution, and — here’s the big one — potential camera recipients must be willing to testify in court.

Since the PD is also sort of getting a free camera — what with Ring’s online portal that allows cops to locate any Ring owner and ask them directly for footage sans warrant — this seems like a raw deal for the general public. While most people do want to help law enforcement put criminals behind bars, a decent percentage of those probably aren’t willing to go so far as to get on the stand during a trial.

Ring says it doesn’t encourage this sort of thing, nor does it craft scripts or write PR pitches suggesting cops offer free cameras in exchange for testimony. But Ring definitely encourages this sort of thing with its unending push to deploy more cameras and get more people using its Neighbors app.

A few weeks after Williams sent out a reminder about the rewards program, a Ring employee emailed him with a congratulatory note: “Since EMPD first onboarded on 5/1, you have all increased your Neighbors app users (El Monte residents) by 1,058 users! Great job!”

And there’s even more encouragement where that came from.

Ring nominated the El Monte Police Department for Ring’s “Agency of the Year Award,” according to new emails obtained by Motherboard. One email from a Ring representative, dated July 2019, asks the police department to submit “a success story” that resulted from using the Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal.

There’s really no downside to the El Monte PD’s exchange program, other than some negative press. If someone is willing to do all of this for a $ 99 camera, it’s unlikely they’ll push back at all when the PD starts asking for their doorbell footage.

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