LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – When Jeffersontown police asked people to register their security cameras with the city government last month, Mike Mirus didn’t hesitate to sign up.
By doing so, he agreed to let investigators contact him about using video from his home if it might help solve a crime.
For Mirus, who has lived in the suburban Jefferson County city for more than 15 years, telling police about his cameras was an easy decision.
“That’s why we buy them – to keep our property safe,” he said. ”We have such great neighbors in this subdivision, why not help keep them safe too?”
In recent months, Jeffersontown has joined other police departments in the Louisville area in adding a new tool to their crimefighting arsenal: Private surveillance cameras.
Besides J’town, Elizabethtown and Oldham County police departments have created lists of residents and businesses with cloudbased cameras like Ring and Nest, giving detectives a database of places with footage that could help identify suspects and fill in critical gaps in investigations.
Other departments are working directly with Ring, part of ecommerce giant Amazon, by accessing a popular app that lets them post crime information and public safety updates – and, during police investigations, request video from people with cameras. Elizabethtown and Jeffersonville, Ind., police acknowledge they recently began partnerships with Ring but have not yet publicized them.
Louisville Metro Police also plans to begin collaborating with Ring. Jennifer Corum, director of LMPD's Real Time Crime Center, said in an email that the agency is in the "beginning stages" of working with the Ring Neighbors app.
"Once we are further along in the process, we will announce our golive date and more details about the partnership," she said.
Increasingly a part of modern life, home cameras have helped catch “porch pirates” stealing packages from doorsteps and deterred wouldbe burglars. They’ve also created social media fodder, from embarrassing falls to showboating wildlife.
While law enforcement in Kentuckiana welcome the new tools, privacy and civil liberties advocates warn that the new relationships between police and technology companies threaten personal privacy and weaken the role of courts in granting access to surveillance footage.
“The rapid proliferation of this partnership between police departments and the Ring surveillance system—without any oversight, transparency, or restrictions—poses a grave threat to the privacy of all people in the community,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote last August.
“It also may chill the First Amendment rights of political canvassers and community organizers who spread their messages doortodoor, and contribute to the unfair racial profiling of our minority neighbors and visitors.”
Police officials interviewed for this story emphasized that their camera programs are voluntary and don’t give agencies control over people’s private cameras or the ability to view their footage.
“We’re not ‘Big Brother,’” said Jeffersontown Police Chief Rick Sanders. “We’re not trying to watch your daily activities. We’re just trying to solve crime.”
Working with Ring
Ring goes so far as to sign deals with local governments, allowing cities to offer discounts on the company’s doorbell cameras and other security gear – with taxpayer funds helping to subsidize the costs. In press releases approved by Ring, city officials herald these arrangements as a way to make their citizens safer.
A Ring spokesperson declined to provide a list of Kentucky and Indiana governments with the “subsidy program agreements.” The spokesperson did not respond to a followup question about how many contracts had been signed in the two states.
WDRB News identified one city in the Louisville area St. Regis Park, a 4thclass city of about 600 homes near Hikes Point. It agreed to subsidize Ring products for its residents by spending up to $5,000, according to a contract obtained by MuckRock, a nonprofit government transparency website.
The agreement also called for St. Regis Park to promote the partnership on its social media platforms and have brochures and flyers available at its city hall.
The city became interested in the program after some car breakins and package thefts, said St. Regis Park council member Craig Theis. Some residents first broached the idea of cameras across the city, but Theis said that was too expensive.
The deal resulted in 49 households in St. Regis Park purchasing Ring equipment, roughly 8% of the city’s households, Theis said in an email. The city’s total cost: $2,450.
“While there is no exact way to quantify the effect it has had at this time, as a council member I felt it best for us to be proactive in helping our citizens,” he said.
More than 400 law enforcement agencies nationwide are working with Ring, according to a map on its blog. Besides Elizabethtown, police departments in the northern Kentucky cities of Edgewood, Newport, Fort Thomas and Bellevue also participate.
In southern Indiana, Jeffersonville’s partnership with Ring lets police request video and make public safety announcements, police spokesman Lt. Isaac Parker said. There is no cost to the city, and he’s not aware of any requirements to promote Ring, he said.
“We’ll use that as a tool similar to the way we use Facebook, similar to the way we use other social media platforms as far as trying to get our message out,” Parker said.
The Ring partnership in Elizabethtown comes after the city announced another program in December called “Virtual Eyes on Crime” that asks residents to join a database of camera owners. As of last week, 83 homes and businesses had signed up, said police spokesman Ofc. John Thomas.
While he’s not aware of the department using any video, “our main goal is to just build this database.”
By working with Ring, Thomas said police can use the Neighbors app to get footage without having to go out and collect it directly from camera owners. Ring says police must make video requests through its staff and don't have access to addresses or user information unless a camera owner agrees to share footage.
Thomas said the department has requested Ring marketing materials for the rollout but “thus far, we have not had any restrictions placed on us in terms of what we can or can’t say publicly about it.”
Sanders, the chief in Jeffersontown, said 46 people have joined city’s registry since it began. Before the program, he said cameras have helped investigations ranging from stolen guns to package thefts.
“We’re supposed to be helping our neighbors, and if their camera can help us solve their neighbor’s crime, we’re all better off,” he said.
Still, such arrangements raise concerns from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues that close ties between police and security companies blunt the role of courts to grant probablecause warrants sought by police for private footage.
Amber Duke, communications director for the ACLU of Kentucky, acknowledged that citizens always have been free to share videos with police, but said people might not believe they have a choice when investigators contact them.
“They might feel like, ‘Oh, I have to participate in this police investigation or I might be charged with obstruction,’” she said. “… Whether or not people say yes to that request, I don’t think we can say that that interaction is entirely uncolored by the potential for coercion.”
Mirus, the Jeffersontown resident who has joined the city’s camera database, said he doesn’t have any major privacy concerns. But he suggested that police might want to talk to participants to ensure that cameras are properly positioned, for example, so they don’t infringe on a neighbor’s privacy.
“If you want to be involved and they want to put these programs together, make sure that everybody’s got a set of guidelines so nobody gets into a lawsuit or anything like that,” he said.