Once an agency has signed up, it can request access to users’ videos directly through the Neighbors app, essentially a digital shortcut around in-person, door-to-door requests for security video footage. In its agreements with police, five of which have been reviewed by NBC, Ring describes Neighbors as “an expansion of the traditional neighborhood watch.”
In press releases, Ring claims that “one Los Angeles neighborhood saw a 55 percent decrease in home break-ins after Ring doorbells were installed on just ten percent of homes.” This pilot, which took place over a seven-month period in 2015 has become a keystone of Ring’s origin story.
Ring declined and Amazon did not respond to requests for data surrounding the methodology or analysis of how this conclusion was reached.
In October 2018, MIT Technology Review magazine concluded that “even if the doorbells had a positive effect, it seemed not to last. In 2017, Wilshire Park suffered more burglaries than in any of the previous seven years.”
In an email to NBC News, Drake Madison, an LAPD spokesperson, did not dispute MIT Technology Review’s conclusions, and declined to characterize Ring’s effectiveness.
He did, however, confirm that after the pilot LAPD did not enter into a contract with Ring.
Ring conducted a similar program in Newark, New Jersey, in 2018, and has made similar claims of a dramatic drop in burglaries, without citing any concrete evidence.
In a statement provided to NBC News, the Newark Police Department repeated the assertions made on the Ring website, without any further explanation of the methodology or analysis. A Newark police spokeswoman, Catherine Adams, clarified that the agency “didn’t capture any information regarding a control group or how many doorbell cameras were installed.”
Newark also does not have a contract with Ring.
More evidence than investigators
In general, Ring’s partnerships with local departments have not been in place long enough to draw firm conclusions about its effects on crime prevention. But anecdotally, even the departments who have used it the longest don’t have much tangible evidence of deterrence of thefts or apprehension of suspects.
Greenfield, Wisconsin, the very first city nationwide to sign an agreement with Ring — nearly two years ago — couldn’t cite a specific arrest that had been facilitated through Ring footage.
“My guess is that we have [made an arrest via Ring], I just can’t recall specifically,” Scott J. Zienkiewicz, a Greenfield police spokesman, said.
Winter Park became one of the first 10 police departments in America to sign up with Ring in spring 2018. Two years on and Ring videos have identified just one would-be thief, according to spokesman Santos: a 13-year-old boy who, according to the police report, opened two delivered packages containing a $325 Away suitcase and a $70 Christmas tree topper. After opening the packages, he “determined he did not like the items” and left the scene on his bike. Eventually the boy was sent to a state diversion program for first-time offenders in lieu of being formally charged in court.
The experience of Greenfield and Winter Park is mirrored in many parts of the country.
Of the arrests that police connected to Ring, most were for low-level non-violent property crimes, according to interviews and police records reviewed by NBC. These arrests detailed the theft of a $13 book, the theft of a Nintendo Switch video game console (and several items, including two coffee mugs, purchased from the Home Shopping Network valued at $175. In Parker County, Texas, two people were arrested for allegedly stealing a dachshund named Rufus Junior, valued at $200.
For instance, Green Bay, the third-largest city in Wisconsin, hasn’t made any arrests via Ring since signing its agreement in August 2018, said Commander Paul Ebel, of the city’s investigations division. Similarly, Mesquite, Texas, has also made just one arrest since signing in September 2018 — for stealing an Amazon-delivered package containing an Echo Show smart speaker, and also the mounted Ring camera itself, spokesman Lt. Stephen Biggs, emailed NBC.
Fort Lauderdale, a Florida city that experienced 728 residential burglaries from January through November 2019, has only had six arrests and four prosecutions stemming from Ring footage since April 2018, Casey Leining, a police spokesperson, said.
Of those, one man, Jerry Hickman, was arrested twice within less than 30 days during the summer of 2018, on four counts of burglary and two counts of petit theft. Hickman was accused of stealing a $40 “golf trainer,” dog treats worth $18, among other low-value items. In June 2019, one man and two male juveniles, were also arrested in the city on charges of vehicle burglary — that stolen car was captured via a Ring camera.
In Houston, Texas, America’s fourth-largest city, police do not keep detailed statistics of Ring-related arrests but estimate that there have been more than 100 since signing an agreement over a year ago. The city experiences approximately 16,000 burglaries per year.
“The way I would describe it, is that it’s an incremental change,” Lt. Jack Harvey, a lead property crime investigator at the Houston Police Department, the nation’s fifth-largest city police agency, said. “It’s not a paradigm shift.”
He noted that the flood of evidence generated by Ring cameras doesn’t often result in positive identification, much less an arrest.
“You have a video of one unknown person in a city of two-and-a-half million people!” he said while chuckling, pointing out that his department is in dire need of more officers.
“Our limiting factor is not evidence,” he continued. “We have more solvable evidence than we have investigators.”
Ring makes it so frictionless to share footage with police that some residents submit videos of anything they find displeasing, even when there is no indication that a crime has been committed, Lt. Santos, of Winter Park, said.
“We’ve gotten videos of racoons in the yard, with people saying, ‘Hey, can you deal with these racoons?’” he said. “That’s the type of people we’re dealing with. They’re constantly sending us video clips.”
Ring declined to respond directly to NBC News’ specific questions surrounding its effectiveness.
“Ring works with local police agencies to help make neighborhoods safer,” the company said in a statement.
“Through these efforts, we are opening up the lines of communication between community members and local police and providing app users with important crime and safety information directly from the official source.”
Ten of the thirteen law enforcement agencies that reported zero Ring-facilitated arrests echoed Ring’s assertion of intangible benefits, saying that the cameras do build relationships with the community, something that would not be reflected in crime statistics.
Others told NBC News that they believe that Ring leads to lower crime rates even in the absence of definitive proof.
In Cape Coral, Florida, burglaries fell by 50 percent and larcenies by 40 percent from 2008 through 2018. In May 2018, the police department signed an agreement with Ring and burglaries and larcenies have continued to fall. From January through June 2018 the city recorded 202 burglaries and 1,084 larcenies. By contrast, during the first six months of 2019, the latest period for which data is available, the city experienced 147 burglaries and 865 larcenies.
“We do attribute a drop in crime to Ring cameras and other surveillance systems,” Master Sergeant Patrick O’Grady of the Cape Coral Police Department, emailed NBC News. “People we arrest for burglary have told us they look to see if there is a Ring camera.”
Police reports of porch piracy and burglary in decline
Another difficulty in measuring Ring’s effectiveness stems from a major structural shift in the economy.
The volume of parcels sent in the U.S. has been rising over the last decade at a rate of about 7-9 percent each year, corresponding with the rise in online shopping, according to the Pitney Bowes Parcel Shipping Index.
However, reported property crimes have been on a steep decline for years, with burglaries falling by nearly half from 2008 to 2018, and larcenies by almost a third, according to FBI statistics. Larcenies include the theft of packages from outside of homes, the crime known colloquially as “porch piracy”.
How is it possible that porch piracy could be falling when the opportunity for the crime is soaring?
One reason the FBI’s crime stats may not accurately reflect the level of porch piracy is that victims of theft are less likely to report the crime to the police than to the sender. For example, customers of Amazon, which sends about a third of the 18 billion packages sent domestically each year according to estimates from transportation consultancy iDrive Logistics, can request that Amazon redeliver the package or send it to another address.
Amazon now owns Ring. If Amazon were willing to make public a number showing the amount of times it has to reship packages that “never arrived,” it might give some insight into the true level of porch piracy, and, going forward, whether an increase in the number of doorbell cameras seems to accompany a lower rate of disappearing packages.
Amazon, however, declined to share such figures, and Ring said that its figure of a 55 percent decline in crimes was based on data provided by LAPD.
Steven Gaut, a spokesman for UPS, said that the company had not observed an increase in the rate of package theft, but had seen a rise in awareness of the issue thanks to people reporting their experiences on social media and using videos from porch cameras like Ring. However, he noted that UPS doesn’t consistently record package theft data.
In the absence of data, what should a consumer do to protect package deliveries?
In several cases, police said that the most effective deterrent to property crime was locking doors, windows, cars, and not leaving anything of value, including packages, visible from the street.
What about cameras?
Read Hayes, a criminologist from the University of Florida who researches package theft for the Loss Prevention Research Council, an industry group of retailers, agreed. He said the best deterrent was placing packages where they can’t be seen from the road, but second best was “increasing the perceived risk of getting caught,” which includes conspicuous surveillance cameras and other security systems. Ring’s deterrent effect is less powerful, he said, because its design is so discreet.
“You have to know it’s there and recognize what it is,” he said. “Ring has promise but it’s not readily noticeable right now.”
In late December 2019, Ben Stickle, a professor of criminal justice at Middle Tennessee State University, published one of the first academic studies of porch camera video footage, analyzing 67 videos he and his research team found on YouTube. He found that most of the so-called “porch pirates” were unfazed by the presence of cameras.
“If you expect the camera to deter people, you’re assuming that they see it and that they care,” Stickle, who served as a police officer in Bowling Green, Kentucky, told NBC News. “Those are two big assumptions.”