Detroit may force businesses to share surveillance

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit police and city officials are drafting an ordinance that would make it mandatory for all venues that serve customers after 10 p.m. to join Project Green Light, a program that allows officers to monitor businesses’ high-definition video feeds in real time.

All businesses open that late — from party stores and gas stations to sports stadiums like Comerica Park and venues like the Fox Theatre — would be subject to the ordinance if it’s passed, police said.

Police report double-digit reductions in violent crime at businesses that have enrolled in Project Green Light, and they hope the ordinance will result in similar drops in crime citywide. Others insist it would be government overreach to force businesses to join the program, raising privacy concerns and questioning whether such a broad ordinance would be legal.

Detroit City Councilman Andre Spivey, who is spearheading the proposal, said he hopes to have the ordinance ready for a council vote within three months.

“We’ve been meeting with DPD about the draft ordinance,” Spivey said. “We’re still tweaking it. We’ll hopefully put it to a vote in September, and then phase it in by ZIP code or council district, rather than making it citywide all at once.”

Companies that sign up for the Green Light program install video cameras, and the live footage is sent to the Detroit Police Real-Time Crime Center, where officers and civilian employees monitor the activity. Businesses in the program also agree to keep their properties well-lit. Officers perform extra patrols at the city’s 123 Green Light locations.

“We’ve set the bar nationally with Project Green Light, because it works,” Detroit police spokesman Michael Woody said.

Justin Winslow, president of the Michigan Restaurant Association, agrees the program has been effective — but he said he has a problem with his members being forced to participate.

“Our impression is that Green Light has been a smashing success,” Winslow said. “We’ve heard positive reports from our members, and we would support initiatives to encourage our members to join. But we always get a bit of pause when there’s a mandate. That’s not something we’d likely support.”

University of Detroit-Mercy law professor Larry Dubin said the ordinance could face challenges in court.

“The validity of the proper use of power exercised by the city in passing an ordinance is whether it serves the health, safety and welfare interests of the community,” Dubin said.

“This ordinance would raise certain issues if challenged,” he said. “Are there alternative ways to accomplish its goals? Do other cities have this type of ordinance, and if so, (what are) their results? What are the unintended consequences of having this law? These types of issues could raise doubt as to whether this law would be a proper exercise of power.”

Other communities make it mandatory for certain businesses to install video cameras, including Clinton Township, which enacted its ordinance in March that covers gas stations, liquor stores, hotels, banks, pharmacies and other businesses with frequent calls to police.

Detroit in 2014 enacted the Gas Station Ordinance, which required gas stations to install video cameras. Spivey, who introduced that proposal, said his most recent proposal would override that statute.

John Roach, spokesman for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

During the first few months after Project Green Light’s launch on Jan. 1, 2016, police reported a 40 percent reduction in violent crime at participating businesses. That has subsequently dropped to 10 percent since the program started, although Woody said the decrease is the result of more companies signing up and skewing the statistics, not a reflection on the program’s effectiveness.

“Let’s say a gas station signs up for the program that’s had a rough year in crime,” he said. “If we started at a 40 percent reduction from last year at all Green Light locations, and we take on a new facility that’s had a lot of crime since last year, it will affect the overall number.

“The fact is, Green Light businesses have seen double-digit decreases (in violent crime),” Woody said.

The program can cost as little as $1,000 down and $160 a month to lease the equipment, although Woody said prices will vary, depending on the size of the business. The original cost was $5,000 down, in addition to monthly lease charges, but Woody said the city worked with Comcast and DTE Energy to allow businesses to make the remaining $4,000 of the down payment in installments, rather than having to pay it all at once.

Detroit business owners are divided about Green Light.

Waked Tahini, owner of the TNW Fuel Stop Sunoco gas station on Gratiot on Detroit’s east side, said the program is a “waste of money” at any price.

“I’ve got friends who have gas stations in the program, and they say police response is the same, with or without Green Light,” Tahini said. “There are more than 100 Green Light businesses, and there’s no way the police can watch them all.

“The other thing is, there’s no privacy,” he said. “If the police want to look at my footage after something happens, of course we’ll give them access to it. But I don’t like the idea of someone watching me or my employees whenever they want to. It’s like putting a camera in your home. I would vote against this.”

Mike Saad, owner of Starter’s Bar & Grill on Plymouth, insists he’s seen a marked improvement in police response time since he joined Green Light.

“There have been times when problems occurred, such as the time when a female saw her man with another female and things got out of hand, and the police were here in 3-4 minutes,” he said. “They never got here that fast before.”

Saad said being in the program gives his customers peace of mind, and allows them and his staff to interact with officers from the 6th Precinct.

“We get the extra patrols, and the officers will stop in at least once, sometimes two or three times a day to sign the (log) book,” Saad said. “Before, if you wanted to get to know the officers from your precinct, you had to go to meetings. Now, they come here.”

Jon Campbell, who owns several Metro Detroit McDonald’s restaurants, including one in Detroit that participates in Project Green Light, said having officers watch his business gives his employees and customers a sense of safety.

“My customers and employees feel secure knowing law enforcement is monitoring in real time should they be needed,” Campbell said.

Woody said the ordinance would apply to venues like Little Caesars Arena, Comerica Park and the Fox Theatre, although he said the plan is to first ensure compliance in high-crime areas.

“The Fox and Comerica Park already have high-def cameras, but we’d work with them to allow us to have access to their footage and video feed,” Woody said. “Those larger venues also have security staff during their business hours, so that’s not our first concern. They will be subject to the ordinance like every other business, though.”

Woody said if the ordinance passes, the department’s Audio Visual Extraction Recovery Team would conduct multiple site inspections, starting with businesses that experience the most crime.

“Not every building will need the same amount of coverage, so our AVERT folks will go out and look at the property, figure out which angles would be best to capture video, and whether a suspect might exit this way or that way, and install the lighting and cameras based on that inspection,” he said.

Woody said the goal is to get businesses to “come willingly” into the program.

“Our citizens want to be safe when they shop at a businesses in the city, and we would hope business owners would work with us to provide that safety.”