Ring's work with police lacks solid evidence of reducing crime
At Amazon's major gadgets event last September, which saw its Alexa digital assistant pop up in eyeglasses (Echo Frames) and a finger ring (Echo Loop) amid a myriad of other Alexa-powered devices, hardware chief Dave Limp took the stage and opened by addressing privacy concerns stemming from the many connected devices the company is behind, including its Ring video doorbells.
"We continue to believe that when you add Ring to a neighborhood, crime is reduced," Limp said.
Limp's comments served as a response to concerns raised by privacy advocates, who took issue with Ring doorbells and police partnerships after a series of investigations by CNET, Motherboard, Gizmodo and The Washington Post, among others, uncovered details on Amazon's hundreds of deals with law enforcement agencies across the US.
He's since doubled down on that sentiment, telling Wired in January that Amazon plans to expand its police partnerships, and telling PBS' Frontline in February, "we think Ring can make neighborhoods safer."
But CNET obtained property-crime statistics from three of Ring's earliest police partners, examining the monthly theft rates from the 12 months before those partners signed up to work with the company, and the 12 months after the relationships began, and found minimal impact from the technology.
The data shows that crime continued to fluctuate, and analysts said that while many factors affect crime rates, such as demographics, median income and weather, Ring's technology likely wasn't one of them.
Police who've partnered with Ring drew the same conclusion.
"In 2019, we saw a 6% decrease in property crime," said Kevin Warych, police patrol commander in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but he noted, "there's no causation with the Ring partnership."
Ring said in a statement that its devices have helped catch burglars, as well as cases of animal abuse, and said that the company helps customers "make a positive impact in their neighborhoods."
"At Ring, our customers are at the core of our mission to help make neighborhoods safer. We believe strong communities are key to creating safer neighborhoods," a Ring spokeswoman said. "And building a stronger community happens when its members come together in support of a common goal."
The statistics CNET found in Green Bay; in Aurora, Illinois; and in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, aren't meant to represent the nationwide impact of Ring, but they do run counter to Ring's effort to promote itself as a crime-fighting tool.
This push has allowed the Amazon unit to partner with more than 1,000 police departments over the last two years, and the number continues to grow. Police sign up with Ring to get access to the Neighbors Law Enforcement Portal, which allows officers to request video footage from people using the Neighbors app.
Last August, Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff said that his goal "would be to have every law enforcement agency on the police portal," arguing that the partnership program "helps all communities come together to make things safe."
Amazon maintains that partnerships with police have made neighborhoods safer, but experts have found the company hasn't provided evidence showing that the video doorbells have actually had any effect on property-theft rates in neighborhoods.
"It's complicated and it's rarely possible to point to one thing or one technology in policing that definitively produced a decline in crime," said Jeff Asher, a former crime analyst for the New Orleans city government and now a consultant.
When success stories don't mean success
At first blush, Ring makes a strong case as to why police departments should partner up. Ring's emails courting these law enforcement agencies include in their signatures a link that points to an LAPD crime study conducted in 2015 claiming that Ring video doorbells reduced burglaries by 55% in six months. Amazon referenced this study when it acquired Ring for $839 million in 2018.
The MIT Technology Review examined that study in October 2018, conducting its own independent review and finding that Ring's claims lacked any evidence to support them. Though burglary rates dropped over a 10-month period, it was a 42% reduction, not the 55% in six months that Ring claims.
Within a year after the study, that neighborhood saw its most burglaries in seven years.
Ring has conducted one other study on the same scale since, in Newark, New Jersey, in 2018. The study also claimed to reduce burglaries by 50% in a four month period, though Ring hasn't released data for that study.
An NBC News investigation in February found similar results, as multiple police departments said they'd made a small number of arrests from Ring footage.
When Ring says it makes neighborhoods safer, it points to cases in which its video footage has helped catch burglars, kidnappers and package thieves. Police departments provide Ring with a steady supply of these case studies.
"We love success stories, so when an arrest can be attributed to the Neighbors App or the Portal, please let me know," a Ring account manager wrote in a Sept. 5, 2018, email to the Green Bay police department, six days after their police partnership began.
Crime analysts don't doubt that Ring has prevented crimes -- but that's a far different assertion to make than that the doorbells have actually reduced the crime rate, Asher said.
"You're going by anecdote, and you're going by feeling, which is generally how people approach understanding crime," Asher said.
Annual vs. monthly crime statistics
Annual property crime data does support Ring's case -- to a degree. After all, the FBI's crime statistics showed that property thefts were decreasing, but Asher said that looking at annual crime statistics doesn't work because they offer too high of a view to be useful. Historically, things were already improving.
"Property crime has been going down since the early 1980s," said Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor who studies crime and neighborhoods. "Ring has a preposterous claim with no statistical basis to it."
To get a better look, CNET obtained monthly property-crime statistics from the police departments in Aurora, Green Bay and Fort Lauderdale. The three police departments were among the first 40 law enforcement agencies to partner with Ring.
Instead of the steady decline that annual data shows, the month-to-month data shows fluctuation, with burglaries and thefts spiking and dropping throughout the year.
The data often shows parallels in crime rates over the months -- essentially dropping and rising in the same months on a year-over-year basis. That parallel would mean crime rates remained similar during the time period, despite the Ring-police partnerships.
Asher notes that factors like the weather can have an effect on crime rates, and it could take years to figure out what caused changes. For example, murder rates increased in 2015 and 2016, but researchers still don't know why.
"It's rarely possible to point to one thing or one technology or one change in policing that definitively produced a decline in crime," Asher said. "The propensity of property crime is to go down, so the degree to which Ring is improving that trend, it's really hard to point to."
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Data from Green Bay's police department showed that property crime rates remained relatively similar in the 12 months after partnering with Ring.
Though the overall lower crime was consistent with historical trends, the average monthly rates stayed about the same, running almost parallel to the year before. Burglaries and thefts dropped during the winter months, when the weather got colder, and rose with the temperature in the summer by the same amount.
Even when crime rates dropped, police don't attribute that to Ring.
"There's so many contributing factors as to why crime increases or decreases," Green Bay commander Warych said. "I know we talk about investigators using it; I don't know if it's become fruitful."
Green Bay's police department partnered with Ring in August 2018, the 34th law enforcement agency to join.
Emails obtained through public records requests show that the Green Bay police department was Wisconsin's top promoter of Ring, convincing 363 people to download the Neighbors app by November, three months after its partnership with Ring began.
When the partnership started, Green Bay police had a program through which it gave residents camera doorbells for free, in exchange for being able to get Ring footage on-demand without any restrictions.
The program ended after CNET's reporting last June on police departments making these deals.
More than a year after the partnership began, Green Bay police said it was unclear how much of an effect Ring has actually had on crime. It doesn't track any numbers related to Ring and doesn't know how much safer the partnership has actually made the region.
"I can't say whether it's causing an increase or a decrease on any crime rates at all," Warych said.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
As in Green Bay, monthly property crime data for Fort Lauderdale showed similar rates before and after police in that city formed a partnership with Ring. Burglaries rose and declined in the same months and at similar rates in Fort Lauderdale, even after the Ring partnership began.
Unlike Green Bay, though, there wasn't a sharp drop from October to January, as thefts actually increased during those months. Weather could play a role here, since Fort Lauderdale doesn't have the same cold winters experienced by Ring partners like Green Bay.
When the police department in Fort Lauderdale joined with Ring in April 2018, it was the first department in Florida to sign up for the Neighbors Portal, and Ring's third police partner nationwide.
At the time, the city had 9,000 residents using Ring, according to public records reviewed by CNET. Ring donated 100 cameras to the police department, and police would raffle off cameras and help people install their video doorbells.
The Fort Lauderdale police department stands by its Ring partnership, saying the arrangement has helped solve crimes in the area, but it declined to answer any questions on how Ring has affected the overall crime rate.
"Ring video has provided leads in solving cases," Casey Liening, the department's public information specialist, said in an email. "Neighbors by Ring has provided a platform for our neighbors to interact and share concerns with one another."
Liening pointed to six arrests that Fort Lauderdale police made, saying they were the only Ring-related arrests known to the department.
The average theft rate before Ring's partnership in Fort Lauderdale was at 369 larcenies a month. In the year after Ring's partnership, the average rate was at 382 thefts a month, data showed.
This change doesn't mean Ring partnerships have been causing more crime, but it also doesn't support the company's claims that it can make neighborhoods safer.
"We cannot attribute a change in the number of property crimes solely to Ring, as it is only one of the many tools we use to investigate and solve crimes," Liening said.
Property crime data for Aurora, Illinois, shows a similar trajectory as in Fort Lauderdale and Green Bay. After Aurora signed up in August 2018, the fluctuation remained steady year over year, and though burglaries and thefts overall were lower following the start of the Ring partnership, the trends remained the same.
Burglary incidents followed the same decline in both years, steadily dropping from September to March, and then as spring came, the crime rate jumped back up.
The year after Ring partnered with Aurora police, property crime fell by 12.1% from 2018 to 2019. But the year before the partnership began, property crime had fallen by 14% from 2017 to 2018.
As in Fort Lauderdale and Green Bay, police in Aurora aren't able to attribute changes in crime rates to partnering with Ring.
In the 20 months since Ring partnered with the Illinois city, the department has used Ring's police portal to request videos only about two dozen times, said Paris Lewbel, the Aurora Police Department's public information officer. The department still relies on traditional detective work, like canvassing a neighborhood, and asks residents to provide footage in person rather than through the online network for which it partnered with Ring.
Lewbel said the Ring partnership was better as a community outreach tool, which helps as part of the department's overall strategy, but that the department doesn't know what effect it's had, outside of anecdotal evidence.
"I can't put numbers on it specifically, if it works or if it doesn't reduce crime," Lewbel said. "We've had people who have told us that they avoid targeting homes because of Ring doorbells or because they've noticed cameras, especially when it comes to package thefts."
If crime had gone down, he noted, there could still be many other factors, like increased policing in a certain area or better community outreach.
Crime analysts point to many factors that affect safety, beyond technology. These include weather, as evidenced by the difference between Green Bay and Fort Lauderdale, the turnover of the residents, size and income.
A comparison between crime rates for Aurora and neighboring North Aurora, just a 10-minute drive away, illustrates this point.
In the year that Aurora's police department had been partnered with Ring, its monthly average burglary rate dropped by 8 percent. In the same period, the monthly average burglary rate in North Aurora dropped by 27 percent, without any Ring partnership. North Aurora did join Ring, but in December 2019, more than a year later.
There were multiple factors that contributed to North Aurora's low property crime rates. For one, Aurora is Illinois' second largest city, with a population of more than 200,000 people, compared with North Aurora, which has about 17,000 people. Aurora's median household income is about $66,000 compared with about $91,000 in North Aurora, according to the city's market profile.
Income and population size are among many factors that account for real differences in crime rates, analysts said, noting that until Ring does an in-depth study controlling for all of those, it doesn't have evidence that its doorbells reduce crime.
Crime analysts aren't entirely dismissive of Ring's potential, but they remain skeptical because of the lack of evidence.
"You can't make any concrete, scientific observations without doing that type of research at the granular level," said Eric Piza, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "There's police interventions. There's local economies shifting. There's a whole lot of things happening."
Public safety is frequently used as a justification for surveillance. It's how schools are convinced to install facial recognition as a way to prevent school shootings, without any evidence that the technology actually accomplishes that. It's why the US government argues against end-to-end encryption on messaging services.
And for years, it's been Ring's main selling point. When questioned about privacy, Amazon's Limp would contend that the police partnerships reduce crime.
Privacy advocates point out that while Ring has drastically ramped up how often people are watched, it doesn't necessarily provide the public safety it claims to.
"They're convincing people that crime is on the rise and if you stick this on your door, it'll keep people safe," said Evan Greer, deputy director of tech advocacy group Fight for the Future. "As we've seen time and time again with surveillance, there's very little evidence to support their claim."
CNET's Justin Cauchon contributed reporting to this story.