Detroit Rallies Support for Citywide Surveillance Network

Residents are being urged to sign a petition supporting a $8.9 million surveillance camera network. The money would come from local and federal traffic signal modernization funds.

by Allie Gross, Detroit Free Press / March 22, 2019
Shutterstock/pixinoo

(TNS) — Detroit officials have orchestrated a 'citizen petition drive' soliciting support for a new multi-million dollar surveillance program pitched by Mayor Mike Duggan that would put high-definition cameras in city neighborhoods.

City officials are emailing local community groups asking them to pre-emptively "pledge support" for Duggan's "Neighborhood Real-Time Intelligence Program," an initiative the mayor highlighted during his State of the City address March 5.

"In order to continue making Detroit a safe place to live, work, and play, we are asking you to gather signatures from your neighbors pledging support for the Neighborhood Real-Time Intelligence Program," an email sent to a local nonprofit and obtained by the Free Press reads.

The email, which was sent by Martin DeNicolo of the Department of Neighborhoods, on behalf of District 7 Manager Mona Ali, explained that the program would essentially be an off-shoot of Project Green Light, a crime-fighting initiative where local businesses pay to have real-time cameras stream to the Detroit Police Department headquarters. It had a petition attached for "neighbors" to sign.

"These cameras will be installed and continuously monitored at no cost to neighborhood residents, used to focus on crimes committed with guns and carjackings, and will not be placed on residential streets," the email stated, emphasizing that the initiative was inspired by the "success" Project Green Light Detroit at "preventing crime and improving safety throughout Detroit's commercial corridors."

Unlike Project Green Light, however, the neighborhood cameras would not be installed on private businesses, but public intersections. The cost would also not be shouldered by businesses — as has been touted as one of the "benefits" of the Project Green Light program — but rather the city.

The city will spend approximately $8.9 million in local and federal traffic signal modernization funds for the installation of the cameras over the next two years, according to Duggan spokesman John Roach.

Roach also noted that unlike Project Green Light, the cameras would not be monitored by DPD but by Detroit Public Works staff at the Real Time Crime Center within the Public Safety headquarters downtown. He said the cameras would just be focused on "Traffic movement."

When asked for clarification for why the city was spending nearly $9 million on traffic surveillance, Roach said the money was not just for cameras but to "upgrade traffic signals."

"One of the things these new traffic signals will be able to do is to immediately alert staff when a traffic signal malfunctions," said Roach. "The cameras will be able to be used to monitor traffic patterns and review accidents to help inform future safety improvements."

Roach emphasized to the Free Press that this was a traffic initiative first, and not a crime initiative.

But Duggan introduced the new system as a crime-fighting initiative during his State of the City address, indicating that in terms of reducing crime in Detroit, hiring more new police officers and pushing for a $10 million budget increase for the police department was "not going to get it done. We are not going to change the direction by doing more of the same."

Duggan credited Police Chief James Craig with the idea of expanding the capabilities of the city traffic light cameras and monitoring them from a single system.

“These are the traffic cameras we’re putting up. We will get shots of the perpetrators as they go past and we’ll be able to chase them down,” Duggan said.

The petition to community members likewise stressed the public safety component, explaining that the feeds would at first stream to the downtown headquarters; however, over time the goal would be to build mini-Real Time Crime Centers at each police precinct in the city.

According to Roach, $2 million has already been allocated for building two such centers in the 8th and 9th precincts. Another $2 million will go toward expanding the main center.

This comes on top of the nearly $8 million in bond money that was allocated in 2016 to the build-out of the original Real Time Crime Center.

In 2019, cameras are set to be installed at 11 intersections on Greenfield and East Seven Mile corridors. Additionally, the Department of Public Works will add cameras to 29 intersections across the city. In 2020 an additional 400 cameras will be added.

"These city-owned cameras" the petition explains, "will complement cameras installed at Project Green Light sites and existing city-owned traffic cameras — establishing a network of 1,000 locations with cameras citywide."

While no initiative has gone before city council yet, Councilwoman Mary Sheffield said she is already working to build provisions to make sure whatever is deployed, is deployed responsibly.

"With an increase in local police surveillance technologies, it is important to create an open and transparent process for the approval or rejection of local surveillance technologies," said Sheffield, who is working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to create an ordinance that regulates the surveillance process.

"It is important to have legally enforceable safeguards, robust transparency, and accountability measures in order to protect civil rights and civil liberties before any surveillance is deployed," she continued.

For critics who have been monitoring Project Green Light, the email proactively requesting support for this future plan raises a host of questions surrounding an expanding surveillance state, and how the Duggan administration is going about garnering support for such initiatives.

"I’m angry," Eric Williams, an attorney working with the American Civil Liberties Union on a committee opposing Project Green Light's surveillance tactics, wrote in an email upon hearing about the petition city officials sent out.

Williams pointed out that the new program's only resemblance to Project Green Light is it has surveillance cameras.

Neighborhood policing, priority-one 911 status and extra lighting, which are part of traditional Project Green Light program are not mentioned with this initiative.

"Proactively reaching out to community groups like this is problematic when they’re doing so by telling them that they are building on Project Green Light, and this doesn’t include the only components of Project Green Light that arguably reduces crime," said Williams referring to the non-camera aspects of the program.

The city defended its use of the emails for support.

"After the Mayor's state of the city address, the Mayor's office began receiving numerous calls and other inquiries from residents and block club leaders across the city who were excited about the expansion of the camera network and wanted their neighborhood corridors to be first in line to have them installed," said Jimmy Settles, group executive for neighborhoods under the Duggan administration.

"We created this form, which was sent to all of our block clubs, to provide a uniform process for community groups to express their interest," he continued. "This form will help us track which neighborhoods are most interested in having cameras installed and which ones still want to learn more before we determine where to start."

Williams, however, maintains that his biggest frustration with this push for expansion is the fact that there is currently no conclusive evidence that Project Green Light — or mass surveillance — has been working to reduce crime in the city.

The email with the petition explained that the desire to expand the surveillance network was predicated on the "success" of programs like Project Green Light in bringing down crime. But it gave no specifics — data or facts — to define "success."

As the Free Press previously reported, evidence of Project Green Light's success is inconclusive.

Researchers say the data that is typically touted by the police department — declining crime at Project Green Light sites, declining car theft across the city — does not actually illustrate much.

What would be necessary to assess the efficacy of the program, according to researchers, is a comprehensive study that compares Green Light locations with non-Green Light locations over time.

Michigan State University — via the city of Detroit — was granted funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to create such a study. However, nothing has been published as of yet.

"Our analysis to date, indicates an initial increase in calls for police service followed by a downward trend in crime. When compared to other non-Green Light locations the results are a bit more difficult to interpret," Edmund McGarrell, the director of the Michigan Justice Statistics Center who is spearheading the study, wrote in an email last fall, explaining that the comparison is hard to analyze because new businesses are constantly being added to Green Light and they need more time and locations to understand the impact on violent crime.

"My best summary is that the preliminary results of Green Light are promising but that more time and more Green Light locations are needed to properly evaluate the impact on crime," he wrote.

In the absence of a conclusive study, experts say it is nearly impossible to tie Detroit's crime reduction — something many cities across the country are also seeing — specifically to Green Light.

"Violent crimes have been declining in many cities across the country. Without rigorous evaluations that use comparison groups, it is difficult to attribute the decline in any city to a specific program or policy,” Bryce Peterson of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Urban Institute, said last spring.

Peterson said he had looked into Detroit’s Project Green Light program in 2017 as a possible option for Milwaukee's police department, where he was advising the department on surveillance options. While he heard many positive reviews of the program, his team "ran into a wall" when it came time to look at the data.

"I am trying to be neutral in that I’ve heard mostly good things about it, but at the same time, I have not seen any direct evidence of its effectiveness, only anecdotal information that we’ve heard from sources with a vested interest in it," Peterson said.

Milwaukee ultimately decided to go in another direction.

Additionally, while researchers remain uncertain whether or not Project Green Light is working without a comparative study, there are also questions around effectiveness as the surveillance network continues to expand.

According to Eric Piza, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who spent time studying camera use in Newark, N.J, research suggests that cameras work best in small, contained environments.

"My own research suggests that there is, for lack of a better term, a tipping point at which the police can get to a situation where they’ve installed so many cameras that they can no longer effectively police them," he said last winter.

His advice to police departments was to install only the number of cameras they can “realistically and proactively” monitor.

With more than 500 Project Green Light locations in Detroit, not all are being monitored at once.

"Even if we had 200 people sitting in the room, we couldn’t view 200 [cameras] — it would be impossible," Craig said in January 2017 when the Free Press asked about monitoring capabilities.

The agreement between Green Light businesses and the police, in fact, notes that DPD will monitor cameras at its "discretion" and will not guarantee but rather make "its best effort to monitor" a business's cameras should it make a 911 call.

It raises questions of what would happen with the Neighborhood Real-Time Intelligence Program.

“If they don’t monitor it, then you’re going to run into the problem that you read about in our report, which is once people know that the cameras are not being monitored, they’re going to lose their effectiveness,” Peterson of the Urban Institute told the Free Press last spring, referring to a 2011 report by his organization that found mixed results around surveillance in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Chicago.

"Results varied, with crime falling in some areas and remaining unchanged in others," the report said, noting that success or failure depended on how the surveillance systems were set up and monitored and how they balanced privacy and security.

Baltimore, which "virtually saturated" its downtown area with blue lights and cameras that were then monitored around the clock by police, found a significant decline in total crime, violent crime, and larceny downtown. The effects, however, were mixed in the neighborhoods. Crime fell by 25 percent in one area, 10 percent in another and stayed the same in a third.

In Chicago, the report documented two neighborhoods in the same precinct that had cameras. One saw crime fall by nearly 12 percent while the other saw no change. The reason for the discrepancy, according to the report’s authors, was that residents in the latter community "believed police weren’t consistently monitoring their neighborhood’s cameras."

For critics of mass-surveillance, like Williams, the question of why this would be expanding before any comparative study is published is puzzling.

"WHY THE [EXPLETITVE] ARE WE EXPANDING IT BEFORE THE STUDY IS EVEN DONE?" Williams wrote in his email to the Free Press. "Would a negative report stop them from expanding? Is the city that desperate to seem like they are doing something? Is there some other motive?"

"This is money and resources," he continued. "Every police officer sitting watching a camera could be out there patrolling the streets."

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