Calif. police partner with app company to help catch thieves, warn neighbors
Oceanside Police say they see the app as a valuable tool that gives them access to videos shared by potentially thousands of city residents
By Karen Kucher
The San Diego Union-Tribune
OCEANSIDE, Calif. — The video is crystal clear: A woman hops off her bicycle, runs up to a house and grabs a box off the porch. In a flash, she dashes back to the sidewalk, tosses the package into the front basket of her accomplice’s bicycle and they pedal off.
A clean getaway?
Well, not really.
The doorbell security camera on the Oceanside home captured every detail of the Nov. 5 theft, in color.
Later, when the couple living in the home reviewed the video, they decided to share it through the Ring Neighbors app to let others know there were package thieves in the area.
Turns out, Oceanside police were able to use the video to identify the two suspects. They are now seeking arrest warrants and “arrests are imminent,” said Oceanside police Sgt. John McKean, who oversees property and financial crime investigations.
The Oceanside Police Department is only the second police agency in California to partner with the Ring’s Neighbors app. The first was the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, Ring spokesman Morgan Culbertson said.
Oceanside police officials stress the city is not endorsing a product or the purchase of any products. Rather, they see the partnership as a valuable tool that gives them access to videos shared by potentially thousands of city residents.
Ring, acquired earlier this year by Amazon, launched the Neighbors app about six months ago. It creates a type of digital community similar to a neighborhood watch operation, company officials say.
The app, available on Android and iOS devices, allows users to access local crime and safety information within a 5-mile radius of their homes. They can view security videos shared by users and communicate with others via text-based messages.
Dozens of law enforcement agencies in Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, Maryland, Missouri, Illinois and California have joined so far, Culbertson said. The company hopes to enter into agreements with others.
McKean said about 6,000 Oceanside residents have signed up to use the app, including about 4,000 who have Ring surveillance cameras.
Police do not have the ability to turn on cameras or review video in real time. They can see videos that have been posted and search specific time frames to see if anyone posted a video on a certain date, anywhere in the city.
McKean said that means officers may not have to go through the time-consuming step of going door-to-door in an area where a crime occurred to ask whether homeowners and residents have surveillance video of the crime scene.
“It is huge. It is a game changer, really,” McKean said. “It doesn’t cost us anything and with all the tight budgets, it is just a good tool for us to use.”
McKean said the company ensures only security and crime information is posted on the site. “You’ll never see anybody selling a couch or looking for an electrician on this website,” McKean said. “It is all safety and crime related.”
As part of the agreement, Oceanside was given 10 doorbell cameras, which McKean said will be distributed to residents who don’t have the devices.
As envisioned, Oceanside crime analysts and interns will use the portal to routinely review videos posted by residents and follow up to make sure they file police reports if they are victims of crimes.
Within weeks of the city entering into the partnership, police already have used surveillance video posted on the Neighbors app to identify suspects in two package thefts.
Mail thefts are considered misdemeanors if the value of the package is less than $950. But to those who rely on package deliveries, the crimes are anything but minor.
“It is people who are ordering Christmas presents. Some people are shut in and everything they get is delivered to their door,” McKean said. “It means a lot more to them, even though it is a misdemeanor. It affects them a lot more.”
Eve Nguyen said she was surprised at how many of her neighbors commented on the video she shared. Some offered empathy while others offered tips, including places where they’d spotted the thieves.
“It was a nice sense of strong community there,” she said.
Her husband, Peter Vu, said it wasn’t the loss of the package that upset him — he thinks it might have contained candles or a license plate holder. Instead, he didn’t like knowing someone came onto his porch to take the items.
“You feel violated,” he said. “People come onto your property and take things that aren’t theirs.”
The reaction of neighbors using the app also made the couple, who have lived in the city about a year and a half, feel like they were part of a community.
“All these people were commenting about it, and you feel a little bit better,” Vu said. “It became a positive thing.”