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In the few years since Detroit and suburban public transit systems installed thousands of surveillance cameras, riders say they feel safer and transit officials have reduced their liability.

 

In October, The Detroit News reported that of about 2,000 freeway and roadway cameras installed by the Michigan Department of Transportation and county road commissions, only four are recording at any given moment. Officials at those organizations cited the cost, storage and legal exposure associated with recording for why it isn't done, outside of training purposes and at the specific request of law enforcement.

But Metro Detroit's two bus systems have far more than 2,000 cameras and they're all recording.  

In mid-2015, when DDOT  installed cameras on its buses and at the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown, no one from the public raised privacy issues, said Chief Ricky Brown of Detroit Transit Police, which secures the bus system as well as those on the People Mover and the new QLine. 

"There was no privacy concern," Brown said. "When you have everybody able to record on their cellphones anyway, (privacy) just wasn't something we heard. We've moved with the times."

At the Rosa Parks Transit Center on Sunday, DDOT riders agreed that the cameras have made a difference.

Cheryl Brown, 58, who said she's been riding DDOT buses for years including before the cameras were installed, believes the cameras on the bus line and around the city have lent to a sense of security.

"I always feel safe here," Brown said at the transit center while waiting for the Dexter bus. "On the bus, it's hit and miss. A lot of people do a lot of (bad behavior) on the bus. I do feel safer knowing there are cameras are recording."

Eugene Sullivan Sr., 71, said he's been exposed to arguments and other riders "throwing trash everywhere,"  but no fist fights,  as a DDOT rider. 

"No one ever wants to say anything," Sullivan said of the misbehavior he's witnessed, before boarding a bus headed for his home in New Center. "At least with the cameras, if something were to happen, they might be able to get some evidence out of it."

A Detroit transit police officer stationed at the Rosa Parks center, who was not authorized to speak to media, said Sunday  he believes the cameras help, if only because they "make people think twice," knowing that whatever is done might not only be seen in the moment, but recorded. 

Brown said if a criminal incident is caught on camera, that footage is kept permanently.

SMART, the suburban bus system, said its retention policies vary, depending on the situation.

On SMART, safety is part of the reason for the cameras, but legal liability is too, said spokeswoman Beth Gibbons. 

Protecting transit systems from liability tends to be the "biggest priority and use" of transit surveillance programs, Gibbons said. 

SMART has 234 fixed route buses; each of them have 11 cameras. Six are inside, five outside. The system's 111 connector buses have eight cameras each, five inside and three outside.

Of DDOT's 300 buses, at least 250 have cameras on the front and back, and new arrivals also have them focused on the bus driver, officials said.

Brown said that buses arriving this year have higher quality cameras than the ones DDOT started with in 2015.

The recording program came as a result of feedback from the public and from its bus drivers, citing safety concerns, Brown said. 

"Drivers feel more secure, knowing we're watching," Brown said. Even in ways beyond its intended use, the surveillance program has been "quite beneficial," Brown said.

DDOT once faced a claim that its bus had been involved in a crash. A review of the footage found that the bus hadn't been involved at all. 

"People can make claims, but sometimes the video says otherwise," Brown said. 

A SMART camera once inadvertently captured a Warren police officer being run over, Gibbons said. Capturing such incidents, when they don't involve the bus system, was never the goal of surveillance, but it has been an unintended benefit. 

"We cooperate when asked" by law enforcement, Gibbons said. 

Still, a camera that can exonerate the system can also capture its wrongs, officials say. They say the risk is worth it. 

"It can go either way, but we still look to (the recorded footage) as a positive," Gibbons said. 

Since it started May 12, the QLine streetcar system has been recording the goings-on on one of Detroit's main roads, Woodward.

Spokesman Dan Lijana said the QLine has 29 station cameras, 15 building cameras near its headquarters at the Penske Tech Center, and roughly 10 “on or in the car.” Footage from the stations is kept for 30 days; in-and-on-vehicle footage is kept for 60. 

Not only do the usual reasons apply to the QLine's surveillance program, but the footage also helps QLine point out deficiencies in the roadway to the city of Detroit and the state.

Driver training and the performance of the streetcars also is reviewed by camera, Lijana said. 

With the transit line operating in a loop on Woodward, starting downtown and ending in Midtown, some of the footage its stations and streetcars capture is of use to law enforcement, Lijana said, citing recent protests on Woodward Avenue that were captured on video.

"We really do use it," Lijana said.

jdickson@detroitnews.com

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