A coalition of religious leaders in Northwest Baltimore has secured $15,000 in slots funding to build a network of private surveillance cameras with the help of Amazon’s Ring, hoping it will aid police in fighting crime without exposing residents to retaliatory violence.
The program, dubbed “Operation On Guard," will serve as a “virtual neighborhood watch” in residential areas near Pimlico Race Course that have experienced an upswing in crime in recent years, according to the Northwest Faith-Based Community Partnership.
The program will provide Ring doorbell and floodlight cameras to homeowners, for free or at a steep discount thanks to matching funds from Ring. It hopes to encourage those homeowners and others with non-Ring devices in the area to then share their footage with each other and the Baltimore Police Department through Ring’s digital “Neighbors” app and online portal, organizers said.
Pastor Terrye Moore, the partnership’s executive director and pastor of New Solid Rock Fellowship Church in Greater Park Heights, said the group is finalizing a memorandum of understanding to operate the program with the Baltimore Police, and hopes to launch this fall.
“It’s a virtual community watch, so that no one has to have their name associated with reporting a crime, with this whole ‘stop snitching’ issue in Baltimore where people are scared to share information,” Moore said. “Hopefully with the presence of more cameras, that will just be a deterrent right there, and people will be less inclined to come and do nefarious things in the community, because they will know the community is on guard."
The group developed the proposal in consultation with Ring officials after Moore reached out to the company. It was approved by the Pimlico Community Development Authority, which oversees disbursement of slot machine proceeds, and the office of then-Mayor Catherine Pugh in October, on the condition that the church group “continue ongoing dialogue and partnership" with the Baltimore Police in developing the program.
The police department did not respond to questions about its role in the program.
Police already enjoy access to footage from other individuals and private entities with camera systems in the city that have signed up to participate in the department’s CitiWatch Community Partnership program, supplementing the surveillance of the city’s own network of about 700 CitiWatch cameras. City officials said the department does not have any direct agreements with Ring.
Moore said the funding will cover a $4,500 pilot program, under which Ring will provide cameras free of charge to about 150 residents. The funding also will cover those residents’ subscription fees to the Neighbors app for a year.
Another $2,500 will cover administrative costs, including training for residents on the capabilities of their new devices and their installation. The remaining money will go toward a subsidy program providing additional residents with steep discounts on Ring products, Moore said.
The state law allowing slots in Maryland mandated a certain percentage of proceeds be directed back into communities impacted by the introduction of expanded gambling in the state. Areas with historic horse racing like Pimlico were included among those communities.
Private security efforts in Northwest Baltimore have received slots funding for years, including the Shomrim community watch group. In one controversial example, Shomrim received $50,000 in 2017 for an SUV that was called a “command center” and adorned with law enforcement-style decals. After that disbursement, Moore’s group became more engaged in seeking funding as well.
City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who represents the area and chairs the council’s public safety committee, said he supports empowering residents with surveillance systems and helped Moore’s group put together its proposal for the camera network.
Schleifer said Ring, which sells some of its cameras for less than $200, has lowered the “barrier of entry” for home surveillance systems, and as a result has helped deter and solve crime in Baltimore. Still, not everyone can afford the cameras, he said, and offering slots funding — and striking a deal with Ring — to bring more cameras to the area at a discount is “a good affordable way to get people who live in those areas something of a security system.”
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Ring has attracted significant attention with its efforts to introduce its products into crime-fearing communities, including by striking deals with police departments and community organizations to push its products.
Ring would not comment on the specifics of its work in Baltimore, but said in a statement that it is "proud to offer programs for cities, community groups, law enforcement agencies and non-profit organizations across the country who share our mission."
It said such programs are “opening up and improving the lines of communication between community members and providing app users with important crime and safety information directly from the official source,” all in a way that “keeps residents in control."
Moore said she was the one who called Ring to ask about its products, not the other way around, based on a “clamoring” for solutions to crime among local residents. She said her plan now is to collect data showing the benefits of the program through the first year in order to attract additional funding to expand the program and bring more Ring cameras into the community.
Pastor Troy Randall, president of the Cuthbert, Cordelia, Hayward and Beauford Neighborhood Association, also expressed his support for the program, writing in a letter to the Pimlico Community Development Authority that senior citizens and kids “are trapped in their homes” for fear of violence on the streets.
Such programs have raised concerns among civil liberties advocates, who say that surveillance, when outsourced by public entities to private citizens and companies, raises important questions about accountability.
Sarah St. Vincent, a researcher on U.S. surveillance and law enforcement at Human Rights Watch, said she could not comment specifically on the Baltimore program involving Ring, but generally, such arrangements raise “potentially troubling and murky questions ... that local authorities and ultimately courts and legislators need to be thinking about.”
St. Vincent said the government “can’t do an end run around its constitutional obligations" to protect individuals’ privacy rights “by compelling someone else to do whatever it is that it wants to do.” So, she said, the baseline question for any government-backed private surveillance program becomes: “Has the legislature really thought about these arrangements and the ways that they could potentially create these sort of dragnet surveillance systems?”
Governments also should fully understand the capabilities of the technologies being used, she said, including whether they collect audio in addition to images and whether they use facial recognition software.
Ring said its cameras do not have facial recognition. The company has applied for patents related to facial recognition technology, but a spokesman said “patents do not reflect current developments to products and services,” nor do they “imply implementation.” Ring cameras are capable of collecting and conveying audio.
Jay Stanley has been studying Ring’s outreach to local communities as a senior policy analyst for the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
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Stanley said individual residents do have a right to record on their property. He added that “if a community is strongly behind something, that’s a lot better than what we often see, which is police just going out and deploying surveillance technologies, like license plate readers, without asking.”
He also said that having a network of private cameras controlled by individuals who can decide whether or not to share their footage with law enforcement is less problematic than a government operating a broad surveillance operation such as Baltimore’s since-scrapped surveillance plane program.
Still, he said, “it is spooky to have one of the nation’s largest companies and largest police departments working hand-in-hand to increase surveillance of our communities.”
Moore said her group’s program does nothing but empower lower-income residents to install cameras at their private residences just like rich people do all the time, and was initiated by residents, not by the police or the city — regardless of where the money is coming from.
“This is people, private citizens, who have a right to purchase a Ring doorbell camera and use it to help eradicate crime,” she said. “This is people who are sick and tired of being locked in their homes, fearful of the activity that is going on on the corner, and doing what is needed to protect and be more vigilant without fear of being seen as someone who is ‘snitching.’”