The Night My Doorbell Camera Captured a Shooting

The 36-second video changed my perspective on home surveillance

AtAt first, I wondered briefly if the popping sounds we heard outside were fireworks. K, my boyfriend, looked over at me. It wasn’t late — maybe 9 or 10 o’clock on a Saturday night in February. Our one-year-old was asleep upstairs, and we were standing in the hallway, getting ready to retreat to different rooms. The latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy was waiting for me on Hulu; he had video games to play in his man cave.

“Did you hear that?” he asked.

Before I could respond, we heard people screaming. For a moment, we didn’t move, and then K darted around me and up the stairs to our daughter’s bedroom, which faces the front of the house. I was close behind him. He snatched her out of the crib and handed her to me. I immediately went into my office, closed the door and sat on the floor away from the windows, soothing our now crying toddler.

Once she quieted down, I strained my ears to listen. The popping sounds had stopped, but I could still hear faint voices outside. The walls of our three-level home in the suburbs felt penetrable now in a way they hadn’t before.

My boyfriend returned a few moments later. “You can come out,” he said. “Whatever happened is over.”

“So it was a shooting?” I asked.

“Yeah. I found blood outside by the front door.”

InIn 2016, a few months after the birth of our daughter, K and I bought a house in a quiet, family-friendly neighborhood in Grovetown, Georgia, outside of the city of Augusta. My partner thought it was a good opportunity to make our home as “smart” as possible. He works far away, so he wanted a surveillance system that would enable him to check on the house easily. His vision was Alexa on every level, security cameras inside and outside, and the ability to adjust the thermostat from our phones — maybe even smart appliances one day, when we could afford them.

“How cool is this smart fridge though, Kim?” he asked me excitedly one day as we researched smart appliances. “It has a touchscreen!”

As for me, I was perfectly satisfied with a dumb refrigerator. Whatever conveniences associated with a smart home seemed like more trouble than it was all worth. More than that, I didn’t want to feel watched in my own home.

Our front door lacked a manual peephole, so K started the tech takeover with a doorbell camera. He chose one called SkyBell, which connects to the Wi-Fi network and allows you to see who’s outside via a mobile app. SkyBell also includes motion sensors, which enable recording even if a visitor hasn’t rung the bell.

I was indifferent about the upgrade — until the night of the shooting.

AAfter putting our daughter back to bed, K and I sat on the couch, discussing what had just happened. I sat close to him, unnerved. “I can’t believe there was a shooting our neighborhood,” I kept saying.

Earlier in the evening, we’d noticed the unusual number of cars parked in front of our house and down the street. We joked that someone was clearly having a party but we hadn’t been invited. We didn’t know for sure, but we guessed — just by the sheer number of attendees — that the party must have gotten out of hand. By the time K went outside to investigate, the excitement had died down. No one was running.

That’s when he’d noticed the drops of blood.

After sitting quietly together for a few minutes, K suddenly pulled his phone out. “I wonder if the SkyBell caught anything.”

It did. Together, we watched the 36-second video — in somewhat muted, full-color night vision — over and over again. At least a dozen people whose faces we couldn’t make out crossed the screen, running away from something happening to the left of our vantage point. About halfway through the clip, a sedan pulled up, and two people who’d been running across our grass pivoted to jump into the car.

Meanwhile, a guy who’d already run past doubled back, stopping right in front of our door. He called out to someone urgently: “You good?” His voice sounded young. “You good?” Another guy limped quickly up to the first, who put his arm around his shoulders to help him. “Move!” he pleads as the two disappear off-screen. “Come on!”

K pointed to the guy who was limping. “He’s probably the one who got shot.” The following morning, we found blood trailing from in front of our porch stairs across the driveway to the side of our house. When the police stopped by to ask us questions a day later, we gave them our footage.

Watching that clip brought me some comfort. Now, at least, I had a better idea of where the blood had come from.

The fact that someone had gotten shot in our neighborhood — maybe even in our yard — was frightening. I felt exposed. We were never really in danger inside our home, but it bothered me having nothing but my imagination to fill in the gaps of what had occurred outside, amidst the sound of gunfire and people screaming.

But watching that clip brought me some comfort. Now, at least, I had a better idea of where the blood had come from. Knowing the gunshots had originated from that party — one that seemed uncharacteristic for the neighborhood — also convinced me that another shooting was unlikely.

The peace of mind I gleaned from that video is similar to the reassurance streetlights offer. Traveling down a dark road is scary, foreboding — who knows what’s out there waiting for us. But lights along a street allow us to better assess our surroundings and, consequently, any potential threats. Streetlights make us feel more secure — even if research shows they don’t necessarily deter crime — because they give us more information about our environment.

Of course, smart doorbells come with their own issues, privacy being a huge one — both for our family, if anyone were to hack the camera, and for those caught by its gaze. There’s so much information I can easily gather from a device that fits in the palm of my hand; sometimes, I can’t help but wonder who else might be able to access that same information.

Yet, for me, those legitimate concerns don’t outweigh the benefits. Home security technology gives us the ability to see beyond the darkness. I don’t expect our doorbell camera — or any surveillance system — to actually make our home safer. But I do feel safer having them now.

I’m not afraid of what might be happening behind our front door anymore. I can pull out my phone and see for myself.

Kimberly Lawson is a former altweekly newspaper editor turned freelance writer. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times, VICE, more. kim-lawson.com

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