Ring looked at cops and saw potential dollar signs.
Years ago, the smart home and security company turned to Los Angeles police officers for help in raising its public profile. Participating cops received free Ring devices and discount codes and, in the worlds of a new Los Angeles TimesLos Angeles Times report, were "urged...to use their connections to promote [the company] via word of mouth."
The marketing move effectively cast cops as influencers, a questionable role for them to play even if it doesn't exactly run afoul of the LAPD's rules of conduct. Officers aren't allowed to receive gifts that could influence their choices on the job, and the report notes that a department review found no rule violations.
Still, we're talking about "at least" 100 police officers who received freebies or discounts from Ring, as well as "more than" 15 cases where recipients went on to promote the company in some way. The proof is in emails reviewed by the Times.
In a 2016 email apparently inviting then-Ring rep Phillip Dienstag to a local community meeting, one senior LAPD officer wrote: "I, of course, will have to explain that I'm not endorsing your company specifically, but I think your product is a great crime prevention tool, and burglaries (and other theft related crimes) are the biggest problems for me in the area that I cover."
The timing is worth noting here; Amazon acquired Ring in 2018, more than a year after the emails discussed in the report were sent. By the end of 2017, prior to the acquisition, the company had raised more than US$200 million from outside investors.
The program, called Pillar, ended in 2019 — well after the Amazon acquisition. A Ring spokesperson told the Times that the company "stopped donating to law enforcement and encouraging police to promote our products years ago."
None of the officers involved agreed to comment on the story.
Despite the statement, Ring's support for the police both before and after the Amazon acquisition is established in the public record. In 2020, the company welcomed almost 1,200 local police and fire departments into its Neighbors Portal program, which lets participating agencies request surveillance footage captured on residential cameras. It was the program's largest annual infusion of new partners to date.
While such a program could arguably help empower real, worthwhile police work, it's also a source for potential abuse. As we learned in February, for example, the LAPD sought — and at least some of the time, received — Ring footage of Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020.
The company is at least creeping toward greater transparency. Earlier in June, we learned of a Ring policy change that now requires law enforcement officials to make their request for Ring footage publicly, rather than privately communicating with Ring owners. What's more, Ring will maintain a database of requests issued by each department so the public can read up on the history.
The policy change isn't going to change critics' minds overnight. Transparency is meaningless without accountability, and there's a long history of Ring being less than on top of protecting users' interests. This newly unearthed Pillar programs is mostly a reminder that, for any steps forward Ring takes in the present, there's a lot of baggage from the past that makes the company hard to trust.