Detroit Police seek live security cam access

George Hunter
The Detroit News

From downtown Detroit restaurants to neighborhood liquor stores and gas stations, to private residences, video cameras are rolling — and recording crime.

Detroit Police say video is a valuable crime-fighting tool, and hope to expand its use by joining a growing number of cities with “real time crime centers” that allow officers to tap into private and public video surveillance systems to monitor their live video feeds watching for crimes and responding as events happen.

Some residents, fed up with crime, are recording criminal activity themselves, although civil liberties advocates warn having cameras in neighborhoods can lead to breaches of privacy and question their effectiveness in lowering crime.

Vaughn Arrington, president of the Pelkey Family Block Club on Detroit’s east side, last month spent $450 for video cameras so he could film lawbreakers and turn the video over to police.

“The no-snitch policy is in full effect in this neighborhood, baby, but I’m going to talk,” he said. “I’m telling criminals: we’ve got these cameras up watching you, so if you don’t want any trouble, don’t come over here causing problems.”

Brightmoor resident Jonathan Pommerville uses a hand-held video camera to record illegal dumpers, scrappers and johns picking up prostitutes. He said his group, Northwest Brightmoor Renaissance, is trying to raise money to install stationary video cameras throughout the area on the city’s northwest side.

“We get a lot of companies coming in from the suburbs to dump, and I confront them, get their licenses and video them,” said Pommerville, 38, who uploads the videos to his YouTube channel ( “We’re looking at (stationary cameras), but we’re limited on funds.”

The group has launched a crowd funding page ( to raise money to buy video cameras and other items. As of Monday, $70 of the target amount of $5,000 has been pledged.

If Detroit police launch the real time crime center, they would seek permission from business owners and citizens such as Arrington and Pommerville to tap into their systems, Deputy Chief David LeValley said.

“Having access to live video would help us respond to crimes quicker, and to relay information about suspects to officers on the street,” LeValley said.

Arrington and Pommerville said they would allow police to monitor their systems.

Rock Ventures CEO Matt Cullen, whose company has installed video cameras downtown, also is willing to cooperate with the police program.

“Rock Ventures, Bedrock Real Estate Services and our other affiliated companies collaborate with ... law enforcement agencies to share useful information and video feeds in the mission of preventing and reducing crime in the downtown Central Business District and any other area of the city where we are engaged,” Cullen said in a written statement.

Rock Ventures cameras were used to identify three Grosse Pointe Woods teen girls who spraypainted a building downtown.

Recent arrests made after police reviewed surveillance video include two shootings in Greektown last month. Last year, a Detroit officer and a St. Clair Shores officer were identified through a gas station video that recorded them confronting a suspect who was believed to have stolen an iPhone from one of the officer’s daughter.

“Having video obviously helps any investigation, but with a real time crime center, we wouldn’t have to go through video after the fact — we could watch situations as they happen,” LeValley said.

Police officials have allocated space in the Public Safety Headquarters for the crime center. Construction and equipment would cost about $5 million, LeValley said.

The department has applied for a federal grant and is working with the nonprofit Detroit Public Safety Foundation to explore funding options, he said. It’s unknown how much it would cost annually to run the crime center.

Lansing, Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Houston, Atlanta and Memphis are among the cities with real-time crime centers. Chicago police officials say the city’s network of public and private surveillance cameras has led to more than 5,500 arrests since 2006.

A 2011 Urban Institute report evaluating cameras for crime control and prevention found real-time police monitoring of surveillance video reduced crime in most of the areas studied.

The American Civil Liberties Union isn’t convinced that’s the case. Its 2012 report criticized a program by the Lansing Police, saying it’s inconclusive whether having police monitor surveillance cameras in real time curbs crime. Twenty-six surveillance cameras were installed in Lansing neighborhoods in 2008.

The rights group found that in Lansing in 2009 and 2010, “major crime actually increased within the 500-foot viewing range at five of the 12 camera locations. In three of the other camera locations, while crime was down within the 500-foot viewing area, it had increased in the 500- to 1,000-foot range,” according to its report.

Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the ACLU of Michigan, said there can be privacy issues when cameras are installed in neighborhoods.

“Sometimes cameras are so powerful, they can pan into someone’s home through the window,” she said. “When Lansing put up their cameras, we worked with them, and they installed software that deletes footage any time the cameras pan onto window glazing.”

Weisberg also said she’s concerned about police having access to private video systems, like they already do during big events downtown such as the annual fireworks display. “Would they use due process the same as they would with a public resource?”

LeValley said citizens’ privacy would not be invaded. “We’re not going to be looking into people’s houses,” he said.

Arrington said he hoped more residents would follow his lead and install cameras.

“I’d like to see block clubs throughout the city start doing this,” Arrington said. “We need to help the police out.”

Ray Rutyna, 68, who lives near Arrington, said cameras probably won’t stop crime, but he thinks it would help police get criminals off the street faster. “It sounds like a good idea to me.”

Muhsin Muhammad, president of the Grandmont/Rosedale block club, said his group has explored putting up video cameras in the northwest side neighborhood. But they’ve been thwarted since no residents have agreed to monitor the video from a base station, he said.

Recently, “we had gang members going up Lyndon breaking into cars, and it would’ve been nice if we’d had cameras to tape them doing it,” he said.

For years, the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers, which represents supermarkets and liquor stores in the city, has advocated for Detroit to get a real-time crime center, president Auday Arabo said.

“Crime continues to be the number one concern for small businesses in Detroit, so anything we can do to help out the police, and help increase response time, we’re 100 percent behind,” Arabo said.

About a year ago, Detroit passed an ordinance requiring gas station owners to install security cameras.

Waked Tahini, owner of TNW Fuel Stop on Gratiot, which has had its share of crime activity, including customers being robbed at gunpoint, said he wouldn’t want police constantly monitoring his station.

“If something happens, I’m happy to give police access and let them review the video, but I wouldn’t want them watching me 24/7,” he said. “It’s a privacy thing.”

Muhammad said he understands the privacy concerns, but added he doesn’t have a problem being on video himself.

“Sometimes (when on patrol), I’ll take photographs, and people will turn their heads. They don’t want anyone taking their pictures,” he said.

“But I don’t care if someone videos me. I’ve got nothing to hide.”

(313) 222-2134