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A new type of neighborhood watch

Apps allow residents to keep up with local crime in real time

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A screen capture from a local Ring user shows an unknown figure on a porch in Peru several months ago. 

A dark image of a hooded figure lurks around the front door of a home in Peru. The stranger lingers around the porch steps while checking his phone, but he doesn’t take anything.

“Creepy. What he lookin for? A key maybe?” asks Neighbor33.

“Did you get the loser?” asks Neighbor31.

“Date and time so I can check my cameras please,” Neighbor24 said.

The post, titled “stranger outside my house,” happened last year and was uploaded to an app called Neighbors by Ring. It comes from an anonymous source, as do the multiple comments from people around the La Salle-Peru area. And footage like this isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence, but as the Neighbors app becomes more popular, the posts become more frequent.

What is it?

The app, which is a steadily rising in popularity with millions of downloads in both the Apple and Google Play stores, bills itself as the “new neighborhood watch” with the goal of creating safer neighborhoods.

Anyone can download the app and set up an account. But most of the posts come from people with Ring products, like doorbell video cameras or other security installations. If any suspicious activity is caught on tape, the homeowner can put the photo or video up on the app for other locals to watch out for.

The Neighbors app launched in May 2018, shortly after Amazon bought Ring, the security products company, for around $1 billion. There are similar products out there for reporting local crime. Apps like Citizen and Nextdoor also allow people to keep up with crimes in the area.

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This screen capture shows Spring Valley resident C.J. VanSchaik handing out fliers before the April 2 election earlier this year. The city council candidate was caught on video on a Ring doorbell, which was then posted on the Neighbors app. On that post, one anonymous neighbor commented there was nothing to worry about: “Very nice man former cubscout leader.”

Are people using it?

In the Illinois Valley, the app might not be immensely popular, but it is definitely in use.

“It strikes me more as a suburban type of thing,” said Peru police chief Doug Bernabei. “We haven’t had anyone reach out to us about it.”

Locally, most posts are for strangers on a property — a political candidate handing out fliers, some kids passing through a yard, or a man dressed in a hard hat and reflective vest knocking on the door.

But the Neighbors network has been growing. Peoria and Bloomington recently joined the network, which allows the police to look into suspicious activity and send alerts to the community via the app.

In the tri-county area, Marseilles Police department joined the network in April, but no other departments are currently on board. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t interest.

“It’s not something I would be opposed to here,” said Princeton police chief Tom Kammerer. “Anytime you can network the community, it’s a good thing.”

The Neighbors team has also started sending news alerts through the app based on local reporting. For instance, police activity at St. Vincent Avenue and Roosevelt Road in La Salle last week spurred an alert.

Does it help deter crimes?

A quick Google search of the Neighbors app will pull up articles about people being caught for petty vandalism or stealing packages off of people’s porches. But those crimes tend to be more common among more densely populated areas.

“We don’t really get a lot of that here, and I’d like to keep it that way. But this would be a good tool for that,” Kammerer said, who took on the Princeton chief job last year after previously serving as a commander in Naperville.

Bernabei said these systems, like any home security camera system, can be helpful for police work following a crime.

“Cameras obviously are helpful, but they’re reactionary. It’s helpful after the fact,” he said. “It may be a deterrent if they know there is a camera.”

If the Neighbors network, or other similar systems, grow in popularity, it will only add more eyes to residential neighborhoods. And Bernabei said video is growing into an important tool for following up on anything from car accidents to crimes. “More often than not, you’re going to be on video,” he said. “The first thing any police officer does now it look around for cameras.”

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NewsTribune Online Editor covering Spring Valley and Dalzell. Contact him at (815) 220-6933 or svreporter@newstrib.com

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