Green Light adds 1st school, sparks criticism

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

This year, students and staff at Detroit’s Randolph Career Technical Education Center have something watching them: more than 20 surveillance cameras.

Those cameras at the west-side center make it the first educational partner in Project Green Light, the 2-year-old city program that allows police to monitor video feeds live at member locales, but it’s drawn criticism from some who see the surveillance as an invasion of privacy, prompting even some students to call for curbing expansion of cameras at schools.

Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. has paid to install 23 cameras at Randolph Career Technical Center through Infinite Technologies.

Authorities have touted the effort as a way to tackle crime, and district officials say joining helps boost safety.

“That’s going to help make it one of our marquee programs,” said Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Detroit Public Schools Community District. “We’re grateful and excited about this being another layer to attract people to this program.”

When announcing the cameras, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district planned talks with the city about expanding to other schools.

But critics wonder whether administrators should have signed up for an effort they doubt is fully effective.

“The only people who are receiving any tangible benefits are camera providers,” said Eric Williams, a local attorney on an American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan committee that opposes the project. “We don’t have any evidence the cameras themselves are reducing crime.”

Some students in the district also have blasted the move and are circulating a petition asking leaders not to expand the program.

“I feel like it ruins the environment we’re in,” said Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Western International who plans to help collect signatures for the petition.

The city launched Project Green Light with eight locations in 2016 in a bid to create safer neighborhoods. Participants can pay between $4,000 and $6,000 to cover installing high-definition cameras and lights on site, along with a monthly fee for cloud-based video storage. Police and civilians monitor the camera feeds at the Real Time Crime Center, and sites are given Priority 1 status on dispatches.

Since its inception, the initiative has grown to include nearly 300 spots — including about a dozen Greektown businesses forming Detroit’s first Green Light Corridor.

Some now are questioning its fairness and scope despite police Chief James Craig touting an average 23 percent citywide reduction in crime and crediting the program with stemming carjackings more than 40 percent over the past two years.

The devices monitor the parking lot and entry and exit points.

DPD statistics show an 11 percent decrease in violent crimes at or near Green Light locations in 2017 over the previous year.

“Ensuring the safety and security of our residents is our No. 1 priority,” Craig said. “With this exciting new partnership, we will continue our efforts in creating a safe environment for all who live, work and play in the city of Detroit.”

Randolph serves youths and adults seeking skilled trades training and career opportunities. The site underwent major renovations last summer through a partnership between the district, the city, Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. and Mayor Mike Duggan’s Workforce Development Board that raised $10 million, officials reported.

Some 300 students attend day classes, and the city intends to enroll as many adults for evening sessions, coordinators said.

“We were thinking about the building being utilized more often at night and with multiple populations,” said Nicole Stallings, deputy director for Detroit’s workforce development.

As part of the partnership, Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. has paid for installing 23 cameras — 21 exterior and two interior — through city-based Infinite Technologies. The devices monitor the parking lot as well as entry and exit points, officials said.

“We are grateful for the security camera infrastructure that will protect not only the investments that were made to bring Randolph Career and Technical Center back to a thriving educational institution, but the newly installed cameras will also ensure the safety of our faculty and guests as well,” Vitti said.

Williams and others, though, raise concerns. He believes the city hasn’t compared crime rates at project locations with those at nonparticipating properties and cites studies his group reviewed that showed surveillance measures in California and the United Kingdom did not appear to significantly decrease or prevent some offenses.

Whether such measures are legal “is arguable,” the attorney said. Even so, he wondered whether cameras at the Detroit school would be properly monitored or have a chilling effect on activities. “These places should serve as a gathering for the community,” he said. “That kind of constant surveillance is not good for democracy in general.”

In January, Chief Craig said the effort’s high-definition cameras have allowed investigators to identify criminals and “virtual patrols” with officers and civilians monitoring the Real Time Crime Center have led to arrests.

“We know that Project Green Light has been successful at locations citywide,” said Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood, a spokeswoman for the police department.

Meanwhile, the district insists cameras are necessary. “We know that safety of our students is key to increasing our enrollment in an environment where students can focus on their learning,” Wilson said.

Safety has weighed on the minds of administrators nationwide and across Metro Detroit following the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February, which spurred many threats.

Though student surveillance isn’t a new concept, spikes in violent incidents can push some districts to collaborate with law enforcement on security measures “that are much more intense,” said Amy Klinger, co-founder and programs director at the nonprofit Educator’s School Safety Network.

Still, her group and others advocate broader efforts that include threat assessment, training and intervention. “If you’re trying to prevent and respond appropriately, then cameras may be one part of the puzzle, but not the whole thing,” she said.

Some national groups have evaluated surveillance effectiveness on the municipal level. The nonprofit Urban Institute released a report in 2011 analyzing surveillance initiatives in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., that found “cameras, when actively monitored, have a cost-beneficial impact on crime ... However, in some contexts and locations these crime reduction benefits are not realized.”

It is difficult to determine whether Project Green Light greatly deters offenders “since we know crime dropped in other parts of Detroit and cities around the country,” said Bryce Peterson, a senior research associate in the institute’s Justice Policy Center advising Milwaukee police on surveillance practices.

Comparing crime rates at places not included and checking whether incidents filmed at partner locations netted prosecutions can paint a clearer picture, he said. But rapidly adding more cameras in schools and elsewhere can also pose challenges for authorities.

“I don’t think people really understand how much data that is and how difficult it is already for police departments to use a small amount of video footage data,” Peterson said.

If the Green Light locations rise to 400 this year as city officials hope, Craig has discussed plans to hire more staff at the Real Time Crime Center, Kirkwood said.

But its presence at Randolph pushed Tamera Middlebrooks, a senior at Cass Technical High School, to start a petition to keep the cameras out of the Detroit district.

The 18-year-old believes law enforcement disproportionately targets the city’s many minority youths and “I don’t want them to be further criminalized,” she said.

“Having cameras constantly on you feels like an invasion of privacy. I feel like it would bring more harm than good.”