Over 18 months, one LAPD officer received more than 10,000 emails from the social platform affiliated with Amazon’s Ring.
September 23, 2021, was a busy day in Jeffry Poole’s inbox. The detective with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) started receiving emails about alleged crimes at 3:30 a.m. that day.
The messages came in slowly at first, but by the afternoon they were landing every 10 minutes or so. All told, Poole received 63 emails from Neighbors, the social media platform for people who own Ring doorbell cameras.
Similar to the message-board style app Nextdoor, Neighbors encourages people with Ring cameras, and others who join the platform independently, to share information to keep their neighborhoods “safe.” People can use Neighbors to publish footage alongside their posts; when the posts are forwarded to police officers, officers can click through to view the accompanying media.
Billed as the “new neighborhood watch” when it launched in May 2018, Neighbors positioned itself as an app to unite “your neighbors, the Ring News team and local law enforcement, so we can work together to stop burglaries, prevent package theft and make our communities safer for all.”
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Ring, which is owned by the tech giant Amazon, has formed a partnership with the LAPD that results in a steady stream of email alerts from the Neighbors platform to hundreds of officers in the department. LAPD is one of more than 2,600 police departments in the United States that have forged partnerships with Amazon’s Ring network.
Working with students from the NYCity News Service at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY (full disclosure: Craig Newmark is also a funder of The Markup), The Markup used public record requests to obtain more than 200,000 emails that were sent to officers’ inboxes from Neighbors from July 11, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2022.
LAPD’s partnership with Ring is one of the latest examples of the department’s rush to adopt technologies and amass data. And while these practices have shown few signs of improving policing outcomes, they take over inboxes, invade consumer privacy, and run the risk of misleading police officers as to how to spend their time and attention.
Poole, who did not respond to three separate requests for comment via his LAPD email and phone, nor to requests sent through a public information officer, was one of 260 LAPD law enforcement officers who had opted in to receive emails of crime alerts posted on Neighbors as of Sept. 30, 2022. Detective Poole received the most Neighbors email alerts of anyone else in the LAPD: During the 18 months or so after he signed up to the service, he received 10,651 emails about alleged crimes and 89 other alerts from Neighbors, including reminders to log into the service when he hadn’t done so in several weeks.
If a user in Los Angeles classifies a post as a “crime,” a police officer like Poole may receive an automated alert in their inbox and can click through to the original post to view any media attached, according to emails that the LAPD released to NBC. About one-third of the emails Poole received on that day in 2021 mentioned package theft or a “PORCH PIRATE,” as one message proclaimed in all caps. Roughly one in ten emails did not describe a crime and often depicted behavior that the poster considered suspicious, such as “checking cars.”
Despite Neighbors employees’ assertions in emails to the LAPD that only posts classified as “crime” were supposed to be forwarded to officers, posts that contain no criminal activity regularly land in officers’ inboxes. When The Markup reviewed 1,000 randomly selected alerts forwarded to LAPD staffers, we found that roughly one-third of them described non-criminal behavior that had been deemed suspicious by users—like walking by cars to check doors or a stranger ringing someone’s doorbell. Some experts worry that this kind of information may shift policing more towards quality-of-life issues and property theft rather than life-threatening crimes like assault.
To Albert Fox Cahn, the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, the deluge of information is a waste of officers’ time. Attention that could be focused on meaningful police work instead gets spent wading through email alerts.
“Treating officers like Reddit moderators isn’t a good use of their time. It’s not a good way to actually engage with the community,” said Cahn.
Ring did not respond to specific questions about Neighbors and did not comment on the data analysis methodology shared with them ahead of publication. Instead, spokesperson Mai Nguyen shared a general overview of Ring’s work with the police and provided a statement that touted “positive examples” of communities working with public safety agencies, such as by returning missing people and pets. “All posts and comments on Neighbors are publicly viewable on the Neighbors feed by users and public safety agencies alike. Both users and public safety agencies control whether and what type of posts they receive via email alerts,” Nguyen wrote in an email to The Markup.
As with Poole, other LAPD officers The Markup identified as using Neighbors to keep tabs on crime did not respond to requests for interviews. But Sarah Brayne, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book “Predict and Surveil,” found that many of the civilian employees and LAPD officers she interviewed worried about the privacy implications of data collection. One interviewee described the LAPD’s approach of “collect now, analyze later” as a form of “data greed,” and wondered whether the massive data collection efforts actually ended in meaningful policing outcomes that would justify the LAPD invading the privacy of consumers.
Peter Polack, a data analyst with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, worries that Neighbors’ relationship with the LAPD is “creating an environment where there aren’t any restrictions to how much information is being collected about people.”
“It just extends the power of police—not just over people who commit crime, but over everyone,” he said.
Waging A War
When Jamie Siminoff first pitched his doorbell company to investors on the reality TV show “Shark Tank” in 2013, he said that it would make “lives more convenient.” He called his gadget Doorbot back then, and said it was like a “caller ID” for your doorbell. It also added security, he said. He didn’t get the investment he wanted from the show, but was able to raise funds elsewhere.
Three years after its TV debut, the company pivoted hard.
“We are going to war with anyone that wants to harm a neighborhood,” Siminoff wrote in an email to employees in 2016, according to the Intercept. Ring would be teaming up with police, he said. Employees were sent camouflage shirts with the Ring logo printed across the chest and the words “Always home” on the back.
In a message to the “the dirtbag criminals that steal our packages and rob our houses,” Siminoff wrote that “your time is numbered because Ring is now officially declaring war on you!” Another email to employees praised Ring’s role in a case where footage from one of its cameras aided law enforcement with issuing a warrant, the Intercept reported. In it, Siminoff said that he wished he “had some better wording for this […] but to put it bluntly, this is just FUCKING AWESOME!”
Ring threw parties with free food and open bars to recruit police to use their services, with at least one party featuring Shaquille O’Neal. The company also started sharing information like maps of active doorbell cameras with police departments.
It brought on police officers as influencers to market its cameras under an ambassador program called Pillar. Ring would send interested officers packages containing “flyers, discount cards, and door hangers with your coupon code printed on them,” according to documents that the LAPD released via the city’s public records requests portal. The company gave at least 100 LAPD officers free cameras, which helped the department create a network of surveillance devices that, in turn, made it easier to obtain video footage, the Los Angeles Times reported. Some cities paid up to $100,000 to subsidize discounts on Ring cameras.
As part of its efforts to court police interest, Ring offered access to a service called the Ring Neighborhoods Portal—a platform separate from Neighbors that allowed police officers to communicate with camera owners, get an overview of active Ring devices in their jurisdiction, and request footage directly from users. In 2021, after criticism following national police brutality protests, Ring changed its policy to no longer allow police to contact users directly. After this, law enforcement officials instead had to post on the apps’ timelines to ask for footage. (An instructional video of the Ring Neighborhoods Portal is archived here).
Today, any “local public safety agency” is invited to fill out a submission form for Ring to review, or email Ring directly to join the Neighbors Public Safety Service, which allows law enforcement to engage with residents on the platform. At the same time, Neighbors continued its email notification system automatically forwarding some posts to officers.
When the LAPD joined Neighbors in May 2019, it became the 240th law enforcement agency to join the service. Today, that number is more than 2,600, according to data from Ring’s Active Agency Map.
The LAPD has a history of embracing unproven technologies that raise concerns about privacy and civil liberties. It was one of the first police departments in the country to develop its own predictive policing program in 2011 called Operation LASER (which stands for Los Angeles’ Strategic Extraction and Restoration). Its goal was to extract “offenders” with laser-like precision, according to the Guardian. Documents obtained by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition showed that the program would produce “chronic offender” lists based on inconsistent data, and that police officers often subjected people on these lists to harassment.
The department also worked with another company, Geolitica, then known as PredPol, which produced a controversial piece of software that disproportionately predicted crimes would happen in minority-neighborhoods. The LAPD ceased both the PredPol program and Operation LASER amid public outcry about bias in 2019 and 2020.
“We’ve seen lots of experiments that have failed. I think you can look at L.A. as a failure of data-driven policing,” Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, professor at the American University Washington College of Law and author of the book “The Rise of Big Data Policing,” told The Markup. “And yet there’s this ever-growing push to have ‘tech solutionism’ be a response to poverty and lack of a social safety net, and a response to some really structural problems that we think we can just have a quick fix with a new algorithm. And [it] usually doesn’t work too well.”
‘We do not “work with” RING’
According to emails that the LAPD released to NBC through a records request, Ring actively recruited LAPD to use the platform. Once Ring’s “success managers” had successfully signed up some members of the LAPD to the service, they would tap into these early adopters to mobilize their peers. To familiarize LAPD officers with the platform, the company organized in-person training sessions as well as video calls.
Ring worked with the LAPD and requested Excel sheets of zip codes about policing beats to draw up “alert zones,” or geographical boundaries officers could select to receive posts on Neighbors from that area.
“When you select an alert zone, you will receive any new resident posts that are categorized through … email notifications,” wrote Andrea Han, a partner success manager at Ring, in an email to more than three dozen police officers in May 2019.
The Markup reached out to the LAPD on three separate occasions between May and September 2023. The LAPD declined all interview requests, and did not comment on specific questions and facts that The Markup presented.
Instead, the LAPD told The Markup that it does not view its relationship with Ring as a partnership. “We do not ‘work with’ RING,” wrote Officer Drake Madison in an email response to a query from The Markup.
“We work with citizens, or whoever has a RING system, as part of a crime investigation. Video surveillance is a great tool. Unfortunately, we will not be speaking on the RING system at this time,” he added in a final email. He would not explain why the LAPD had received thousands of emails with crime alerts.
Despite Ring’s extensive push, it’s unclear what the tangible outcomes of these partnerships actually are. The LAPD did not explain how they used the forwarded posts, or the portal that gives them an overview of the neighborhoods where these posts are initially published. In the more than 200,000 emails The Markup received via public records, close to 400 were notifications that a user responded to a post by a LAPD officer. In this dataset, at least 26 LAPD officers posted in Neighbors at least once and received responses from users.
Some users would thank officers for their posts, with many officer usernames, at times, including their rank and name, followed by “Los Angeles Police Department.” Others responded with their own concerns. One user, for example, commented on a post titled “LAPD Coffee Sun Valley, Shadow Hills, La Tuna Canyon, North Hollywood,” asking “What can we do about the homeless people in RVs around the neighborhood ?” Another post by a police officer titled “Need the Community’s help …Serial Commercial Burglar” prompted a Neighbors user to comment: “Maybe clean up the street across Panera by [redacted name of business]? All homeless people.”
In response to another post from the LAPD titled “COMMUNITY ALERT – Hot Prowl Burglary,” a user replied: “I thank the LAPD for posting this and doing their part to apprehend these losers.”
A 2019 investigation from NBC showed that many police departments didn’t make any arrests from Ring footage, and that there’s very little evidence that Ring actually reduces crime.
To Cahn, the platform is a space where “there’s a lot of people who are trying to turn every complaint and grievance they have into yet another policing matter.”
“And they’re doing it in a way which makes it harder for police to actually respond to the things they normally would prioritize.”