During the beginning of 2020, the Madison Police Department directed efforts toward improving surveillance across the city to effectively monitor and solve crimes by utilizing an abundance of registered cameras and a relatively new social media app, Neighbors.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, in 2018, the MPD administered a program that expanded surveillance abilities in various parts of the city. The program included the addition of privately registered security cameras to an MPD registry and a partnership with Amazon’s Neighbors app by Ring. Ring is a digital doorbell that provides security footage to the homeowner’s smartphone through the coinciding app, Neighbors, according to their website.
The Wisconsin State Journal said the registration of surveillance cameras and the use of Ring allowed for more community participation in helping the police solve crimes, while also speeding up the investigation process. Ring targets community members’ need for more self-surveillance, without pressure from law enforcement, according to The Washington Post.
Law Professor and author of “The Rise of Big Data Policing” Andrew Guthrie Ferguson told The Washington Post that Ring is a clever workaround in security networks, without the scrutiny that comes with police or government surveillance.
According to the City of Madison’s website, the camera registry is a voluntary service allowing local individuals and businesses to register their cameras, and provides MPD with footage that may be connected to neighborhood crimes. To register a camera, owners must provide pertinent information regarding the number of cameras owned, the views each one provides and the locations of each camera, according to the City of Madison’s website.
According to the City of Madison’s website, if footage of suspicious activity was captured, the MPD could request permission to use the footage, but the MPD would not disclose any personal information provided. Currently, there are almost 500 privately registered cameras for use by the MPD, including some Ring doorbells, according to The Wisconsin State Journal. MPD already owns 160 surveillance cameras in the city, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
The MPD’s Public Information Officer Joel DeSpain said the growing amount of cameras police have access to will only benefit the ability to solve crimes quickly and more effectively.
“Of course, we are also quite cognizant of peoples’ privacy rights, and look to maintain those as we investigate,” DeSpain said.
Police forces all over the country have partnered with Ring, according to The Washington Post. There are now 400 different forces that have access to the Neighbors users’ video footage.
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DeSpain said when the MPD recently joined Ring in these surveillance efforts, the use of the Neighbors app was still in its early stages of development.
“To date, neither [the Neighbors app] nor the camera registry have provided significant impact on the greater campus area, to include the Isthmus,” DeSpain said.
DeSpain said while not all surveillance cameras are registered for use by the MPD, a significant amount of cameras in the downtown area captured footage useful for solving crimes. DeSpain said these cameras could be owned by many establishments including the city, the University of Wisconsin, hotels, businesses and the Madison Metro Transit buses. All of these entities were willing to share footage in the majority of investigations, according to DeSpain.
DeSpain said the MPD has a strong working relationship with the UW-Madison Police Department, and the two departments often share surveillance with each other. UWPD’s Public Information Officer Marc Lovicott spoke on behalf of the camera specialists for the department.
“The camera registry program is a City of Madison program,” Lovicott said. “We maintain our own security camera system on campus. The program is for private citizens to register their cameras that are personally owned. We do not have any of those types of devices on campus.”
UW students want improvements for their security in the downtown area, according to a petition on Change.org. After a few incidents on the campus streets and streets bordering campus students have been involved in their own efforts to maximize safety for themselves and their peers, according to the petition. Over 1,800 students signed the petition, which began in the spring of 2019 through Change.org, in the hopes to put more Blue Buttons on campus, which emergency dial local police from the press of a button, according to the petition.
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Margo Fuchs, a UW sophomore journalism student, signed the petition.
“In my few semesters here, there have been multiple serious incidents that have provoked concerns for my safety, especially where I live [on Langdon Street],” Fuchs said. “The addition of surveillance cameras would definitely begin to combat some of these problems.”