Victims of domestic violence in Philadelphia now have access to free ring doorbells through the city’s premier domestic violence service provider.
Ring on Thursday pledged to donate up to 1,000 of its camera-equipped smart doorbells and subscription plans to Women Against Abuse, a nonprofit advocacy group founded in 1976 that provides domestic violence services to over 10,000 people each year. The donation comes amid an alarming rise in violence against women since the pandemic began — and also at a time of heightened scrutiny of the Amazon-owned surveillance giant, which has recently come under renewed fire for its practices of sharing data with law enforcement agencies across the country.
Joanna Otero-Cruz, executive director of Women Against Abuse, said the home security systems are in high demand among people fleeing violence and starting new lives.
“This is one of the biggest demands of our law center clients, along with going to court,” she said.
Cameras can also help victims of domestic violence gather evidence to file an abuse protection order — or to prove that an abuser violated an existing order, said Jamie Colleen Miller, board member of the nonprofit, which is a survivor of is domestic violence.
Cameras also provide a sense of personal safety for people coping with years of trauma that can follow an abusive relationship.
For many, the fear is forever – even if no one is at the door.
“People really don’t have an opportunity to escape from this trauma and pain,” said Rep. Joanna McClinton, who facilitated the talks between Ring and the nonprofit. “Women who can break free from domestic violence are still scared, and they still don’t have the tools or mechanisms to prove if they are in constant danger.”
Reports of fatal domestic violence cases have skyrocketed in Philadelphia over the past year. The police department attributed 43 homicides in 2021 to domestic violence, compared to 18 in 2020 or 28 in 2019. During the pandemic, requests for protection from abuse, or PFAs, fell precipitously, and the city’s two safe havens were low occupancy , a decline that proponents attribute to fears of gathering environments and the inability of many victims to flee their abusers at home during the lockdown.
Ring announcer Melissa Gansler said she had no role in distributing the devices and that Women Against Abuse was identifying the needs of violence survivors.
However, Ring’s ever-expanding network of police partners has raised concerns about domestic violence occurring in law enforcement. In Philadelphia, at least six officers have been charged with molestation in recent years, and the Police Department has tracked hundreds of domestic disputes reported by wives and girlfriends of Philadelphia police officers over the years.
Launched nearly a decade ago at a time when home surveillance wasn’t ubiquitous, Ring has grown to become the leading video doorbell distributor, selling more than 1.7 million units in 2021. The company was acquired by Amazon in 2018 and has since expanded its reach by partnering with more than 2,100 police departments across the country, which use an app called Neighbors to request surveillance footage from Ring users.
Ring has maintained that it doesn’t make footage available without the owner’s permission — or a court order — except in emergency situations. Last month, the tech giant admitted for the first time that it had actually provided footage to law enforcement in at least 11 “emergencies” this year, a revelation that sparked a new scrutiny of the tech company’s data-sharing policies.
While some Philly-area police forces are part of the Ring network, PPD spokesman Sgt. Eric Gripp said the city government was not among them, adding that it can sometimes be difficult to obtain a search warrant for Ring footage .
“It’s not that easy – and it shouldn’t be,” Gripp said.
Gansler could not confirm whether emergency footage had been released in Philadelphia.
“Ring maintains a high bar for disclosure of customer information and thoroughly reviews every emergency request,” Gansler said in a statement. “Our policy, like that of many other companies, is to only honor these emergency requests when there is an imminent threat of death or serious injury, which includes kidnappings, cases of attempted homicide and incidents involving a risk of self-harm.”
Gripp also could not confirm whether the department received footage without a court order, but said it could in a time-sensitive emergency such as a kidnapping.
In many cases, Gripp says, Ring users willingly provide footage to the police department or post it publicly on social media. He said the department does not have remote access to livestream video.
Even under the department’s SafeCam program, a decades-old initiative that allows residents to register their personal surveillance devices with a city crime database, Gripp says police don’t have unlimited access to footage. The database only tells police where cameras are located, in addition to the owner’s contact information.