WEST ORANGE, NJ – The West Orange Township Council voted 4-1 last week to approve a plan allowing the West Orange Police Department (WOPD) to have access to the Neighbors App Portal associated with “Ring,” a video doorbell surveillance system owned by Amazon.
Prior to the council’s vote, West Orange Chief of Police James Abbott was surprised at the amount of opposition that he heard from members of the public.
“To be honest with you, I thought this thing would fly right under the radar,” said Abbott, adding that, to his knowledge, other towns that use this service have not had any issues.
Abbott explained that the partnership between the WOPD and Ring revolves around the Neighbors App, which is a portal through which private citizens could voluntarily share their recorded videos with others in their neighborhood.
“We [the WOPD] have access to it by this Memorandum of [Understanding],” said Abbott, explaining that residents who own a Ring doorbell do not have to share their recorded videos to the portal. “They can have a Ring doorbell and not join this portal in their neighborhood, which has a geofence just limited to their neighborhood; it’s not the whole town.
“They can join [the portal] or they can not join. If they choose to join, they can upload [to the portal] or they cannot upload. It’s not automatic; there’s no facial recognition involved.”
Elizabeth Redwine was among the many residents who expressed concern about this use of Ring doorbells because they believe that Ring will “create a platform for the police to survey activity without connection to a specific report of a crime.” Redwine continued that this is different from a an “individual calling the police and reporting 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,” said Redwine.
Resident Khabirah Myers—who likened the police’s access to the Neighbors App portal to a “fourth amendment search without a warrant”—requested that the council reject the resolution until more research could be done to “ensure adequate oversight and transparency of this partnership.”
“The data collected by Amazon and company will be used for marketing purposes and/or sold to other corporations thus monetizing our police department,” said Myers despite the portion of the Memorandum of Understanding that states, “At no point shall either party receive compensation from each other as a result of this program.”
Resident Mark Myers countered the negative comments by saying that use of Ring surveillance footage by the police cannot be inherently racist because “it can only be racist in the hands of a racist.” He added that opposing the use of the portal would imply that the “citizens of West Orange are going to use it for racism,” which he disagreed with.
After listening to public comment, Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown, who was the sole no-vote and admitted to owning a Ring doorbell, also expressed concern about the portal.
“I don’t have the privilege of feeling comfortable in my own skin as some of my council colleagues do,” said Matute-Brown, explaining that there have been instances where she, her husband, and even her son, have been profiled due to their appearance. “I am not going to participate in circumstances endangering both the lives of our police officers and our residents because someone fits the description. I don’t want to have any more ‘Trayvon Martins’ on our hands or ‘Tamir Rices’ or ‘Michael Browns.’”
Matute-Brown also expressed that she would personally feel uncomfortable sharing videos to the portal.
In response, Abbott reminded the public that participating in the portal is completely voluntary and that the WOPD is not endorsing Ring or Amazon.
“We’re going to endorse this portal as a good mechanism for crime prevention,” he said.