WEST ORANGE, NJ — On Aug. 13, the West Orange Township Council approved a resolution allowing the Police Department to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with Ring, a doorbell surveillance system owned by Amazon. The MOU allows the WOPD to access the Neighbors app, where citizens who own a Ring system can voluntarily share their videos in the neighborhood, in the event of a crime. The resolution passed with a vote of 4-1; Councilwoman Cindy-Matute Brown cast the only opposing vote.
In an explanation of the MOU at the meeting, police Chief James Abbott said police will only have access to the video footage residents voluntarily give to them and police would only look for it if there is a crime they are investigating.
“A doorbell that videotapes — we can probably agree for the most part — is a good thing,” Abbott said at the meeting. “If you don’t think so, you don’t buy one. We’re not endorsing Amazon or Ring. There’s other companies out there that do these. I would suggest anybody get this because personally I think it’s a good crime-prevention tool.”
Residents who own a Ring system then have access to the app, and can upload their video footage for their neighbors to see. Abbott emphasized that it is voluntary for Ring owners to share video.
“They can have a Ring doorbell and not join this portal in their neighborhood,” he said. “There’s a geofence limiting it to their neighborhood; it’s not the whole town. They can join or they can not join. If they choose to join, they can upload or they can not upload. It’s not automatic.”
In explaining her vote against the resolution, Matute-Brown said she was afraid the police having access to surveillance footage would exacerbate racial tensions that already exist between law enforcement officials and people of color.
“There are large racial disparities in education, in schooling, in policing,” she said at the meeting. “That’s not contested; that is research and is there. My concern is: When I see these videos posted on social media, it’s typically someone of color. Just the perception of that scares me. The perception of participating in that scares me. There are biases in all of our social structures and I, speaking as someone who is a person of color, am alarmed at the fact that this will just be something else.”
Matute-Brown was also concerned about the quality of the Ring footage exacerbating the problem, saying the video the doorbell produces is grainy, particularly at night when there is low lighting.
Abbott responded by saying that the police cannot access the app or video footage without an active case number. He also pointed out that the technology would be available to residents regardless of whether the resolution passed.
“Whether you collectively do this here this evening or not, this is available to residents that have a Ring doorbell,” Abbott said. “They can still do it and share it and all of those biases can occur. We’re just asking for a seat at the table for what the residents who own a Ring doorbell can already do.”
He added that if the resolution did not pass, everyone in a neighborhood could see video that residents choose to share, but the police cannot if there is a crime. Residents still get to decide whether they want to share footage.
“You still have that choice,” Abbott said. “You have the choice to join the portal or not join the portal. If you join you have the choice whether to share that data or not share that data.”
Matute-Brown was not the only one at the meeting concerned about the MOU. West Orange resident Elizabeth Redwine said in her comments that she believes Ring will create a platform for the police to survey activity, which is different than an individual calling the police to report a crime.
“This would mean our community is participating in a platform that really does — and I’ve read many articles about this — proliferate bias while also implicitly endorsing Amazon and their products,” Redwine said.
Khabirah Myers also expressed her displeasure with the resolution during the public comment portion of the meeting, likening the police’s potential access to the portal to “a Fourth Amendment search without a warrant.”
“There are multiple ways that the crime-prevention goals of our West Orange Police Department can be accomplished,” Myers said, adding that a private list of residents who own Ring doorbells could be made. “This partnership will not only create unwanted government surveillance, but will also collect corporate surveillance, where the data collected by Amazon will be used for marketing purposes or sold to other corporations, thus monetizing our police department.”
The MOU reads: “Ring will not provide any customer personal information, including video footage, to Agency without the prior consent of the owner or properly issued legal process that complies with federal and state law, as applicable. At no point shall either party receive compensation from each other as a result of this program.”
Matute-Brown, who said that she reluctantly owns a Ring doorbell, said she would not be able to participate in something that could heighten racial biases that already exist.
“I am not willing to participate in that forum that gives that much more opportunity for that to be maybe the case,” she said.