WEST ORANGE, NJ — Residents gathered in the West Orange Public Library on Sept. 9 to discuss the Memorandum of Understanding that the West Orange Police Department entered into with Ring, a doorbell surveillance system owned by Amazon. A resolution passed at the Aug. 13 council meeting put the MOU into effect, allowing the WOPD, in the event of a crime, to access the Neighbors app, where citizens who own a Ring system can voluntarily share their videos.
Chief James Abbott sat on this week’s panel, which was organized by Essex Rising, along with Evan Feeney, a campaign director for Color of Change, a national racial justice organization; and Albert Fox Cahn, the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. The panel was moderated by Kabirah Myers, an Essex Rising co-founder and Steering Committee member.
Chief Abbott spoke about how the department would use the MOU at the meeting on Aug. 13. The police will only have access to the video footage residents voluntarily share to the community on the app and police will only look on the app for footage if they are investigating a crime in the area and have an active case number. All residents who own a Ring system have access to the app, and can choose whether to upload video footage for their neighbors to see. Abbott emphasized that it is voluntary for Ring owners to share video.
On the panel, both Cahn and Feeney expressed fear that the police agreement would lead to biases against minorities being exacerbated.
“My fear is that when we have terms like ‘suspicious person,’ they become coded language for black or Latinx people,” Cahn said.
Feeney agreed. “These are time and time again used against the most vulnerable groups,” he said. “We have to think about the majority of people these cameras will capture, which is service workers, like postal workers, delivery workers and others. Many of those people are minorities.”
Abbott clarified that the department is not accessing anything that cannot already be accessed by the public, by virtue of the fact that residents who own a Ring doorbell can post the footage to the Neighbors app if they choose to do so. The police can only use the app to request the footage if there is an active case number on file.
“We’re not using authority to view it,” Abbott said. “It’s not a search warrant. Any person can give the police access, just like they can turn it down. We’re not taking anything from anyone. They’re putting it on the app and it’s public access. If they don’t post it to the app, it can’t be accessed by police.”
Feeney also spoke about the potential fear-mongering that the police having access to the camera footage could create. Although sharing footage is voluntary, many people see police officers as authority figures to whom they can’t say no.
“The police department does have power and authority,” Feeney said. “For many people, that doesn’t seem like something they would be able to refuse.”
Cahn echoed this, saying that not everyone is comfortable sharing information with the police.
“For a lot of people, that’s terrifying,” he said. “For a lot of people, that makes them feel like they are now a suspect.”
Videotaping people without their express permission was the topic of several of Myers’ questions, and Abbott said that in a public place, residents do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. It is legal to record them walking down the street, which the Ring doorbell does since it faces the outside of the house. Abbott said that since the MOU was passed, the department was able to view footage that showed someone getting out of a car and opening doors of cars parked on the street in an attempt to break into them.
“The footage wasn’t good enough to be able to tell height, weight, gender, race or anything like that,” Abbott said. “But we’re now able to tell people, ‘This is what can happen when you’re asleep. Make sure you lock your car at night.’”
One of the more concerning parts of the Ring system to Cahn is the Neighbors app, which he said creates fear where there shouldn’t be any. Feeney agreed, saying that sharing footage among neighbors when there has been no verified crime can be dangerous.
“That creates a heightened sense of fear that we don’t want among neighbors,” he said. “It pushes people to call the police when it might just be someone canvassing before an election or passing out pamphlets for a takeout place.”
Cahn said there should be a stronger system of checks and balances put in place so footage that is obtained by the police is not misused. He also pointed out that doorbell video should not be relied on too heavily by the police even though it could be a useful tool, and Abbott agreed on both points.
The chief said that — as with any new technology introduced — the doorbell system and its use by police will probably change over time. Abbott compared it to DNA evidence and the early fingerprinting systems, both of which evolved into useful policing technologies. But he emphasized that Ring is not the most important part of an ongoing investigation, if used at all.
“Ring footage is not in any way the only piece of evidence we would need,” Abbott said. “The prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a crime, and Ring is definitely not going to do that. It’s just another tool that I think should be included.”