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Amazon’s New Neighborhood Watch Will Revolutionize Crime Control
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 08/12/2019

Neighborhood scaled Introduction

Amazon revolutionized technology, delivery, inventory, and retail. Now it’s about to do the same for crime control, (disclosure-I own Amazon stock).

Amazon’s Ring doorbell has an app called Neighbors that lets you post video and photos of suspicious activities, crime and more in your neighborhood. Amazon will also start tapping into the computer-aided dispatch systems of participating police agencies and broadcast them in real-time (see CNBC link at bottom).

Amazon is hiring a director and a team of people to push crime news directly to participants.

What does this mean? You will get immediate notifications to your phone or computer of crime in your neighborhood plus whatever your neighbors deem suspicious. You don’t have to buy a Ring doorbell to do this. And if Amazon is doing this to promote Ring (and the possibility of additional security systems), you can bet that ADT and other tech firms will follow.

We are about to enter a new day as to technology-based crime control. This is truly uncharted territory with endless and potentially profound issues for law enforcement, communities and the entire justice system. Amazon’s new neighborhood watch could be a game changer.

Me, McGruff and Neighborhood Watch

I was hired years ago to promote neighborhood watch and community-based crime prevention as the senior crime prevention specialist for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. I advised the “McGruff The Crime Dog” national advertising campaign. I was the director of information services for the National Crime Prevention Council. I helped give birth to the national crime prevention and neighborhood watch efforts.

Neighborhood watch was effective in reducing crime, especially property crime because it acted as the eyes and ears of law enforcement and because people improved the security of their own homes. Fear of crime decreased. There was little crime displacement to adjacent communities.

People Want Crime News

People’s desire for crime news is insatiable; it’s the most popular topic for the media excluding weather, Crime News.

The Problem

The problem with neighborhood watch and its eventual downfall was that it asked participants to do too much. If you wanted information and updates, you had to attend meetings and communicate through monthly or quarterly newsletters or telephone marketing technology. It was all cumbersome, time-intensive and difficult to maintain and expand. Most neighborhood efforts simply died.

But the Amazon effort overcomes all of this with automated technology that lets you know at dispatch if a robbery was committed up the street. Your neighbors can post video, photos or descriptions in real-time to everyone with the app.

Uncharted Territory

We are about to enter a new world of uncertainties. So you know that a robbery is currently happening blocks away because police are being sent there. What do you do? What actions will you take? Who will you tell?

Where I currently live in the West Virginia mountains, a bear siting is recorded and immediately transmitted via Facebook groups. We track the bear in real-time. Kids are pulled from the street. We make mental note of firearms (that are never used).

What would the community do about an armed robber or someone who looks like the armed robber or generally fits the race and sex of the armed robber as described by police dispatchers?

In the same West Virginia community, we were harshly confronted by residents because we were walking through property owned by the association. The woman questioning us (and it was pure confrontation) demanded our names and proof that we lived there. When we were hesitant about cooperating, she yelled to her husband to call the authorities. I would suggest to you that this would get her assaulted (or worse) in some neighborhoods.

As to neighbors posting a video or anything else, what happens if someone stopped and observed your house? Will you post it as suspicious? Do you know what reasonably constitutes suspicious activity? Will you call the police? Will you directly confront? I ask because when walking, I stop to observe landscaping and unique features of a house all the time.

There are existing apps (Nextdoor) that generate their own issues as to what’s posted, The Atlantic. All we know is that the Nextdoor app is growing like wildfire, and its top topic is crime.

Half of Americans Believe Crime is Very or Extremely Serious

Why are these new apps appearing? Because close to half of Americans believe the problem of crime in the United States is very or extremely serious, Serious Crime Concerns.

More Fear of Crime Data

56 percent of Americans believe that crime needs to be reduced-Pew.

68 percent of Americans believe that crime is increasing-Gallup.

Two-thirds of gun owners say protection from crime is a major reason they own a gun-Pew, Fear of Crime.

Crime is the number one topic (beyond weather) requested by news consumers, Crime News.

Law Enforcement’s Issues

What law enforcement and the rest of the justice system doesn’t fully recognize is that all of this is going to land in our laps.

The apps are going to flood police dispatchers with new and immediate information which is both a blessing (if you catch the armed robber) or a curse. Because of a neighbors post of a video of a “suspicious” person, you call cops to investigate someone walking through the neighborhood without criminal intent.

Police agencies are going to have to educate residents as to what to do as to ethics, privacy, and legality, how to record information, how to transmit it, and “if” it’s worth transmitting.

We constantly preach that if you see something, you should say something. Decades ago, we told citizens to notify law enforcement as to any questionable activities. Doing it by phone means a level of direct involvement (i.e., a live recording of your voice) that causes people to hesitate. But like social media, we become emboldened when information is offered through an app.

Law enforcement will be flooded by inquiries. Like disaster agencies monitoring social media during major events, police are going to have to review data from apps in real-time. If they don’t, they will be accused of not knowing about a child abduction that the community knew about twenty minutes ago.

Conclusion

We are about to enter a new world that will have both positive and negative implications.

Returning to the West Virginia mountains, residents here post dramatic photos of abused women and the accused on Facebook. Break-ins are announced and descriptions of the stolen items offered. While I don’t know the numbers, cops tell me that in many cases, people get their property back via Facebook and community pressure. People are openly shamed for any misdeed deemed inappropriate. This is the informal social control criminologists teach in first-year college studies.

But beyond public shaming, the new apps are going to have real implications for the justice system. We have a renewed responsibility to teach about what and how to report. We are going to have to develop mechanisms to interact with the public daily as we respond to new issues. Podcasts, audio, video, social media and websites are going to have to be created just for this purpose, Being Proactive.

These conversations need to happen now. There will have to be a renewed interest and guidance at the national level via the US Department of Justice.

The emerging neighborhood watch apps can either be a positive force for crime control, community stability and police-community relations or it can become an overwhelming burden that inflicts harm or discrimination.

We thought that GPS or satellite tracking of offenders would be new technology that would have a positive impact on crime until we released how incredibly labor-intensive it was.

We within the justice community need to get ahead of the new technology. We need to guide its implementation. Communities turn to law enforcement and corrections as being the most knowledgeable people to guide community crime concerns.

Whether we are prepared for it or not, the new neighborhood watch is coming.

For Additional Information

For additional information and background, see a story at CNBC.

Amazon’s official blog post is available at Ring. Ring reviewed the article without comment.

Reprinted with permission from https://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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