Doorbell camera program helps 200 Kalamazoo area households find a bit more security

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

What makes you nervous when you’re at home, your safe place and refuge from the world?
Sometimes it’s a stranger at the door in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s an occupied car that’s been parked across the street too long.
It may only be a loose dog running around, or loud people gathering somewhere they shouldn’t. But it’s always good to know what’s going on right outside your front door, and have a way to address it.
That has made a doorbell camera initiative funded by the City of Kalamazoo and administered by Building Blocks of Kalamazoo a benefit to about 200 local households that would otherwise not be able to afford the computer-based security technology.
Katie McPherson is executive director of Building Blocks of Kalamazoo, which administers the Ring doorbell camera initiative.“I hear a lot of gratitude from a lot of area residents,” says Katie McPherson, executive director of Building Block, a community-organizing, non-profit organization that works to help people improve their own neighborhoods. It oversaw the purchase and installation of the 200 Ring doorbell camera systems in October and early November.
Priority was given to income-limited residents of Kalamazoo's core neighborhoods. Those included Kalamazoo’s Eastside, Edison, and Northside neighborhoods, McPherson says. The systems were provided free of charge on a first-come, first-served based.
“They are very thankful not just for the financial support – to be able to have the Ring system paid for,” McPherson says, “but the technical support was a game-changer.”
Many of the recipients were seniors who wanted to increase their sense of security but who aren’t very tech-savvy. Now, McPherson says, “Residents have their smartphones, they’re able to get notifications of the footage at their door.”
She says, “I was talking to a resident last week who was saying, ‘Oh, yeah, it helped us solve like two issues we were having on our street.’ It seems to very much be a value-add (project) for residents.”
The initiative was a partnership between the City of Kalamazoo and Building Blocks, along with a partnership between Building Blocks and Western Michigan University. 
The doorbell systems were installed in about 32 days, starting in October, primarily by two men contracted by Building Blocks. Technical support sessions were offered from early October to early November to help homeowners link their new systems to their smartphones and other devices. WMU’s Service Learning Center connected 25 student interns with Building Blocks to teach homeowners how to set up passwords, manage verification codes, and complete other steps.
Working through Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse, Building Blocks received a discounted rate on the doorbell systems. Ring’s Video Doorbells sell for as low as $60 and as much as $350, depending on the caliber of the system and where it is purchased. The systems purchased by the city typically retail for just over $100, McPherson says.
Participants in the initiative received the systems for free but needed to be able to afford the $39.99 annual subscription fee that accompanies the Ring security system. It links the doorbell cameras to cloud technology that records activity the camera detects.
“In the end,” McPherson says, “out of the 200 Ring cameras that were distributed, 104 of those went to homes in the Northside, 39 went to homes in Edison, 30 went to Eastside residents, eight went to Vine, six went to West Douglass Neighborhood, one went to Oakwood, and the other 12 went to other Kalamazoo neighborhoods.”
Providing more access to security systems was one of four initiatives approved for funding by the Kalamazoo City Commission in December of 2020. The motion-activated doorbell cameras automatically make a video recording that scans a large area outside of where they are mounted. Authorities hope the knowledge of that will be a deterrent for crimes and problem behavior.
Stephanie Vallar is Northside Neighborhood coordinator for Building Blocks of Kalamazoo, which administers the Ring doorbell camera initiative.“I can say overall, through the conversation that I have had with others in my neighborhood or in other areas – where there’s a heavier presence of the Ring doorbell cameras – some of that activity ... has changed,” says Stephanie Vallar, who is Northside Neighborhood coordinator for Building Blocks.
Among the bad behavior, she mentioned the large “mobile nuisance parties that have involved carloads of young people following one another at high speeds from place to place.
“People don’t like to be monitored on video recording devices or potentially being captured doing something that may be illegal,” she says. “So by increasing the number of Rings throughout Kalamazoo County, the end goal is to have an extra set of eyes."
Among the 52 city blocks that make up the Northside Neighborhood, Vallar says, “I can say there are very few blocks that did not receive a Ring (system).”
She helped lead a campaign to install doorbell security cameras a year before the initiative was approved by the city. So she is pleased that the initiative moved forward.
David Boysen, acting chief of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, says that while the doorbell security initiative is not a project of KDPS, law enforcement likes having area people monitor what goes on around them. And they like seeing footage of suspicious activity that homeowners post on the Ring Neighborhood platform, a cloud-based computer app that Ring subscribers and others can see.
Shown here is an image from a doorbell camera that shows a stranger approaching an area resident's house. The security system allowed the resident to ask others about the unwanted visitor.“We have been pushing for the Ring cameras since 2020 as a tool, a very important tool to help us get ahead of some of the violent crime trends we had seen increasing since the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest in 2020,” Boysen says. “One of the things we have seen is that people were less and less likely to cooperate with the police when there was a crime, especially a violent crime.”
He says people have not been comfortable giving statements to officers or cooperating in investigations, particularly during the past two years, usually for fear of retaliation. “We recognize that one of the ways that we were solving these violent crimes, particularly during that time, was obtaining Ring camera footage or surveillance camera footage where people would voluntarily share that with us.”
He says the footage is posted anonymously “so they can share that and we don’t need them to testify. They don’t have to show up in court, they don’t have to put their name out there, and we have the evidence we need to gain a conviction.”
People with Ring devices can anonymously post anything they want, or post nothing at all. And there is no obligation for them to share anything with police. Boysen emphasized that the doorbell initiative is a community-directed initiative, not one driven by Public Safety.
Northside Building Blocks coordinator Vallar says, “It would be the choice of the Ring device owner to release any video footage to Public Safety.”
The police also do not know the name or address of anyone who posts a video or message to the Ring Neighbors platform. If there is a situation where police are intent on finding evidence to help solve a major crime, they would have to secure a warrant to obtain it.
WMU students help residents of various Kalamazoo neighborhoods get acquainted with the doorbell camera technology that was installed in 200 local homes this fall. Building Blocks of Kalamazoo organized the instructional sessions.Vallar says that while doorbell cameras have not halted crime, they have changed the behavior of those who would commit crimes “because no one wants to be caught on camera committing a crime.” Using technology, there has been an increase in residents warning others about suspicious people and activities.
“Through the Ring Neighbors app, you’re seeing people being more open to posting (statements like): ‘Hey, there are people looking through cars,’” she says.
Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson had pushed the doorbell camera initiative as a means to help deter gun violence, which he said was on the rise and a crisis in Kalamazoo.
Each of four initiatives intended to help stop violence received $25,000 in funding, channeled through the city’s Department of Community Planning and Economic Development. The other initiatives are:
• Community Mobilization and cohesion – Working to engage community leaders who are actively working to reduce violence, and to develop and grow block clubs.
• Community Healing – Providing mental health services for the survivors and victims of gun violence.
• Housing Rehabilitation – Providing support to repair homes that were damaged as a result of gun violence.
McPherson says there is a waiting list of about 15 individuals or households who would like to get a Ring system. But she says no additional program has been announced.
A view from the Ring Camera systemAsked why Building Blocks of Kalamazoo agreed to administer the initiative, McPherson says,” “It aligns with us wanting to be responsive to resident-led work, resident-led enhancement projects.”
She says she and her people thought it was taking a long time for the initiative to get going (the City Commission approved the idea on Dec. 7, 2020), and, through their engagement with people in various neighborhoods, they knew it was something a lot of people wanted.
“If Ring cameras are a hot project that residents want done to enhance their block or to enhance their neighborhood,” McPherson says, “then we should say yes and we should get the work done, and make this happen. That’s why we took it on.”
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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.