Up to 250 police departments have joined Amazon's Ring Neighbors program, a neighborhood watch app, but these deals don't happen overnight. For the Chula Vista police department in California, Ring spent more than a year offering discounts and applying peer pressure with constant reminders and emails to convince officers to sign up.
The Chula Vista police department signed up for Ring's Neighbors program in May, but the courtship started in March 2018, according to documents obtained by CNET through a Freedom of Information Act request. The video doorbell company pitched the program to the police department two months before it was publicly announced.
These documents detail how Ring's staff convinced a local police department in California to join Neighbors, an app released by the company in May 2018. When police didn't respond, Ring would follow up by noting neighboring law enforcement agencies that have joined, pushing for the Chula Vista police to join them.
The tactics also offer a window into how Ring, which retail giant Amazon purchased last year for $839 million, has struck partnerships with police departments across the country. Police consider it a tool for obtaining video in investigations, as well as creating surveillance networks in residential neighborhoods.
But these relationships are cause for alarm among privacy advocates, who raise concerns that a tech giant like Amazon is helping police create surveillance networks.
"A long term goal for CVPD is to have a real-time crime center which will be doing a myriad of things. One of those things would be leveraging civilian surveillance cameras in the city to aid us in solving crime and learning about crime patterns," CVPD's community policing Sgt. Frank Giaime said in an email to Ring. "As the crime analysis unit's capacity increases, I would like to integrate a program like this to help us build a partnership with the community through technology."
Ring didn't respond to a request for comment.
"No, the Chula Vista Police Department did not feel pressured in any way to partner with Ring's Neighbors app," the CVPD's investigations division Capt. Phil Collum said in an email.
For the CVPD, the courtship began with a cold pitch.
The first email from Ring's outreach coordinator to the Chula Vista police department came in March 2018.
The message opened with an introduction and a comment on an increase in crime in the area.
"I recently came across this News clip of an uptick in home break-ins in Chula Vista," the coordinator wrote. "As an extension of Ring's Neighborhoods initiative, I'm reaching out to share an offer to all public safety agencies that actively participate in either crime prevention or community policing."
He offered to donate a free video doorbell, as well as discounts of up to $50 for more cameras. The email also referenced a Ring pilot program that claimed it reduced crime rates. MIT Technology Review scrutinized that study last October and found that the evidence was flimsy.
The Chula Vista police didn't respond for 10 days, and the outreach coordinator followed up, this time with a flier on different Ring products and a $50 promo code for every officer in the department on video doorbells.
CPVD responded and said it would follow up, giving Ring a foot in the door.
There's no email communication between the two until about three months later, in May 2018. The same coordinator said Raymond Pollum, Ring's head of law enforcement partnerships, would be in the San Diego area demonstrating tools for other police departments.
Pollum met with the CVPD department on May 3, 2018, and provided a demonstration of Neighbors and the police dashboard. He followed up with an email four days later and attached a memorandum of understanding "for consideration," even though CVPD hadn't agreed to join the program yet.
The police department responded a month later, telling Pollum it sent the proposed contract to higher-ups in June. When he didn't get a response for another month, Pollum followed up a month later, sending police a link to a crime solved in Tampa, Florida, through Ring's cameras. CVPD didn't respond to that message.
At the same time, the department was coordinating National Night Out, an annual police-community event for promoting neighborhood safety. Ring was a sponsor for it, and its coordinator promoted contests and giveaways for free video doorbells and discounts at CVPD's event.
"We appreciate the goodies you're sending and are most interested in having someone man a booth," Angela Gaines, CVPD's police community relations officer, told Ring in an email.
Ring had brought 20 video doorbell kits for the police community event that August.
The peer pressure campaign started in January 2019, after surrounding police departments partnered with Ring. Pollum had given the department another demo, and sent the CVPD the memorandum of understanding again on Feb. 1.
Giaime told Ring that the department was "eager" to sign the contract but needed to send it off to the chain of command for approval. He told Pollum it would take a few weeks to get a formal presentation together.
Four days after Ring's demonstration, Pollum followed up with another email.
"We executed the La Mesa PD MOU yesterday, so they will join Carlsbad PD and Oceanside PD as San Diego LE portal participants," Pollum wrote. "Not sure if peer pressure is a good thing or not, but wanted to at least make you aware that they are joining the program and will be onboarded shortly."
About three weeks later, on Feb. 21, Pollum followed up and told the sergeant that the La Mesa police department joined Ring, and the San Diego sheriff's department approved the MOU. Again, Giaime told Pollum he would need a few weeks to put together the presentation and get approval from the command staff.
Ring followed up in a month and a half, listing even more police departments that are signing up with the company.
"As Chula Vista Police Department considers the benefits of gaining access to the Neighbors Portal, I thought it might be helpful to know of other agencies in the area that have joined," Pollum wrote on April 2.
He listed the San Diego County sheriff's department, along with police in Oceanside, Carlsbad and La Mesa, and noted that officers in Escondido and National City were considering the program.
Six days after that, Ring sent another email to CVPD with the same message.
"SD Sheriff's joined a couple of weeks ago so I'm hoping to get the other major cities in San Diego onboard quickly. Can you give me a quick update on where things stand?" Pollum wrote.
Giaime responded with an apology, noting that the police "had a lot of things going on" during that time.
He made the presentation to higher-ups on April 26, and four days later, the Chula Vista Police Department signed Ring's contract, which went into effect on May 1. The department officially announced it joined three months later, on its Instagram page.
After a year of emails, discounts and peer pressure from Ring's executives, CVPD became one of hundreds of police departments to join Ring.