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Wis. police partner with Amazon on public safety app

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Chris Rickert
Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — Madison residents and businesses have registered nearly 500 private surveillance cameras with the city’s police department under a program launched in 2018 to help investigators get easier access to video that might help solve crimes.

The department also signed an agreement last year with Amazon subsidiary Ring that gives police access to alerts through the company’s crime-focused social media app, as well as a quicker way to request video picked up by privately owned Ring doorbell cameras.

Both developments come amid an explosion in the past 15 years in the number of public and private surveillance cameras trained on Americans and growing interest by law enforcement in using the video they produce as tools in solving crimes.

The Madison Police Department’s camera registry is voluntary. In addition to camera owners’ names, addresses and phone numbers, it asks about the number of cameras at a location, how long the video is retained and what views the cameras provide. The registry’s terms of use make clear that police will not disclose camera owners’ personal information online but say such information could be subject to disclosure through open records requests. Camera owners are told they can refuse to relinquish their video, but it might still be obtained with a warrant.

As of Monday, residents or businesses had registered a total of 480 cameras at 208 locations with police.

Separately, Madison police in July signed a memorandum of understanding with Ring to get access to the company’s Neighbors app, which allows users to share public safety-related information within distinct geographic areas determined by a user’s address. A police department that partners with Ring can receive alerts from the department’s entire jurisdiction.

Having police as members of a public safety-related social network could be attractive to other network users, and Ring has made a concerted effort to encourage police participation.

According to emails released through a Wisconsin State Journal public records request, the company appears to have used a mixture of perks and flattery to encourage Madison police participation.

In a June 11 email to East District Capt. Cory Nelson, Ring law enforcement liaison Phillip Dienstag thanks Nelson for his help in setting up a meeting earlier that day and says that “through readings online and conversations with law enforcement officials at conferences, it’s obvious that the Madison Police Department is one of the most innovative and progressive law enforcement agencies in the United States.

“MPD’s participation of the Ring Neighbors Portal would not only enhance the (already) strong relationship that you have with your community but add a tool that can help identify suspects and place arrests,” he said.

Dienstag, who declined to comment, also shared a coupon code during the meeting that individual officers could use to get a $50 discount on a Ring product.

Acting police chief Vic Wahl said Ring made at least one in-person presentation to police about the app, “but it never felt like a hard sell to me.” He said being part of the Neighbors app provides “just another way to ask for” security camera video.

“We regularly seek and obtain private video (including from Ring doorbells) when investigating crimes. Typically these requests are made in person as part of a neighborhood canvas,” he said, adding the app will “allow us to ask for videos more efficiently than going door-to-door.”

The emails show some police were cognizant of the company’s sales approach. On Aug. 26, crime prevention officer Tyler Grigg emailed captain of community outreach Matthew Tye a link to an article entitled “How Amazon convinces police to join the Ring network,” from the tech-focused news site CNET.

Ring, in a statement, did not respond to written questions from the Wisconsin State Journal about how many police agencies in Wisconsin and nationwide now participate in the app; any discounts it offered Madison police and how many Madison officers, if any, took advantage of those discounts; when Ring first contacted the department about partnering with Ring; how many times a Ring representative visited the department; and whether it believes having police on the app makes it more attractive to potential users.

An Aug. 28 Washington Post story, however, reported that more than 400 American police agencies had partnered with Ring, and Ring on its website advertises a 20% discount to first responders on “select Ring.com purchases.”

Wahl didn’t know if police had used the Neighbors app to request security video yet, much less whether the video was helpful in an investigation.

Police spokesman Joel DeSpain also said he was “not aware of cameras in the short-lived registry program assisting to solve cases,” but in general home surveillance systems have “greatly helped in many cases,” including in cases of shots fired, burglaries and thefts from vehicles.

The Dane County Sheriff’s Office announced in May that it had joined the Neighbors app. Sheriff Dave Mahoney said he was “pretty sure” the office has requested video through the app but couldn’t provide details. He said doorbell camera video was used in the investigation that led to the arrest of 21-year-old Riley Berg last week in the January killing of Nicholas Day in the town of Blue Mounds.

Madison police own 160 surveillance cameras around the city, not including squad car cameras. As of late 2017, they also had access to some 700 stationary cameras controlled by other city agencies. Metro Transit had another approximately 1,100 cameras on 230 buses.

Among the places the city lacks surveillance is on police officers. The City Council so far has declined to participate in the national trend toward outfitting officers with body-worn cameras.