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Police turn to private doorbell cameras to help catch criminals

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Police departments across the U.S. are asking residents to register their security cameras so they can quickly request footage if an incident occurs nearby.
USA TODAY

DES MOINES, Iowa – Waukee police, hoping to tap into the growing number of home security cameras to solve crimes, are asking residents to register their cameras so police can quickly request footage if an incident occurs nearby.

Police departments across the country are turning to homeowners to establish a network of cameras throughout their communities. Cities in Texas, New York and Virginia, among others, have established similar programs, taking advantage of increasingly popular doorbell cameras.

Video footage from a home security camera in Brooklyn, Iowa, led police to the car of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the man accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts last summer.

Cedar Rapids Police began their community camera program last year. Police say private video footage from a 2018 burglary helped them to catch a murder suspect. The man later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

“It’s crazy how many people have doorbell cameras … it’s going to be an advantage for us,” Waukee police Sgt. Mackenzie Sposeto said. “We just started thinking outside of the box and, knowing that we’re already going to businesses, so why aren’t we involving the community to be proactive with us?”

More than 3.4 million doorbell recording devices were expected to be sold last year. Market research firm Strategy Analytics expects sales to reach $1.4 billion by 2023, up from $500 million last year.

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A report from NextMarket Insights says “smart security devices” will be in use in more than 22 million U.S. homes by 2020.

Video doorbells are priced at about $99 for basic features that include Wi-Fi hookup and two-way talk. A monthly subscription is often required for cloud storage of video or other monitoring services. 

Ring Inc., one of the leading makers of motion-sensing doorbells, was purchased by Amazon for $853 million last year. The devices stream real-time video to a user’s smartphone, tablet or desktop, allowing homeowners to see and talk to people on their doorsteps. 

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Media – and the company’s own advertising – focus on how Ring recordings have helped police to identify criminals. Private residents and police regularly share images on social media platforms, like a virtual crime watch among neighbors.

Doorbell camera companies also say their cameras help to deter criminals. However, there are few statistics showing that doorbell cameras lead to lower crime rates. 

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Ring founder Jamie Siminoff tells Jefferson Graham how his video doorbell and companion products spook burglars and help curb crime, on #TalkingTech.
USA TODAY

Some police departments offer discounts on doorbell cameras in exchange for access to footage.

Waukee is the first police department in the Des Moines metro to try mapping private cameras. Waukee is not offering subsidies on devices, but since launching the program a few weeks ago, it has received around 20 applications.

Sposeto said that registering a camera does not give police automatic access to footage. But if a crime occurs in a neighborhood with a registered camera, police can quickly contact the owner and request recordings.

The program has the potential to help police to identify people or vehicles involved in a crime or to capture the path of people leaving a crime scene.

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The Warren County Attorney’s Office launched a similar program last fall, but it hasn’t yet advertised for registrations. Warren County Attorney Doug Eichholz said 12 cameras have been registered so far.

The Des Moines Register contacted other metro police departments. None said it had plans to ask residents to voluntarily register their cameras.

“There are no plans right now to start this, but it does look like a good idea,” Urbandale police Capt. Kent Knopf said. “We do use neighborhood canvases, and if a detective notices any cameras in the area, they check with those residents.”

Waukee’s population has quadrupled in the past two decades, and with more people comes more crime and more calls for assistance, Sposeto said.

“We’re growing so much,” he said. “When you have an increasing population, you get an increased crime rate. With the program, we will know right where to go if we have a crime in that area.”

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