Police surveillance expansion plan splits Detroiters

George Hunter
The Detroit News
A traffic camera is positioned on a pole at 7 Mile and Livernois in Detroit.

Detroit — City and police officials want to emulate Project Green Light at Detroit's red lights, although critics are holding up a stop sign.

Mayor Mike Duggan said he wants police to be able to tap into video from cameras mounted on city traffic lights to investigate crimes — a concept that draws from Project Green Light, which police say has helped deter crime by allowing police to monitor real-time video feeds from gas stations, restaurants, stores and other city businesses.

The mayor's strategy, which he outlined March 5 during his State of the City address, has drawn praise from people who think the plan will make residents safer and criticism from those concerned about privacy.

Critics say there's no way to determine whether the Green Light program is responsible for reported drops in crime and argue that expanding the program to allow police to monitor traffic light surveillance cameras is too intrusive.

“We operate as a society on the premise that the government will stay out of our business unless they have a reason not to,” said Eric Williams, an attorney who is working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on the issue. “This completely changes that equation. The default in our society should not be that the government is watching you.”

Breanna Lingo, 28, crime analyst, is seen monitoring her screens inside the Real-Time Crime Center at the Detroit Public Safety headquarters .

Police Chief James Craig said the privacy concerns are misguided.

"The proposal is for this to be all done in the public space," he said. "There is no right to privacy in the public space.

"What I'm confused about is: Are (critics) more concerned about protecting the rights of criminals to prey on our citizens than they are about having a safe community? We're not going to be spying on people; all we want is be able to go back and look at video from traffic signals if there's a crime we're investigating," Craig said.

Crime analysts monitor multiple video screens for possible criminal behavior inside the Real-Time Crime Center at the Detroit Public Safety headquarters on Friday, March 15, 2019.

Duggan has said more needs to be done "to keep our community safe" in touting his plan to expand on the concept of Project Green Light, in which business owners pay a fee for high-definition video cameras, lighting and extra police patrols. The cameras send live video to the Real Time Crime Center at police headquarters, where police and civilians monitor the feeds. 

Police say there has been a 31 percent decrease in violent crime in and around Green Light locations since the program started Jan. 1, 2016. The city marked the signup of its 500th Green Light business last week.

By the end of 2020, the city will have a network of 1,000 high-definition cameras to track criminals, Duggan said. He said he’s been flooded with phone calls praising the plan.

City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield is among the council members raising concern about Duggan's plan. She's pushing for legislation to ensure transparency, voicing worries over who may be watching, and who has access to the footage. 

"When you start increasing surveillance technology, people do not feel comfortable, and it can be a concern," said Sheffield, adding that increases in surveillance technology are "usually in communities of color."

"We want to make sure that in a majority black city ... we have proper protocols, requirements and policy in place to ensure that the information is being submitted to the appropriate departments.”

This photo shows four different live camera feeds from the same business, a west-side Detroit gas station. The real-time video is monitored by members of the Project Green Light program.

Duggan said he understands the apprehension and that council members' concerns are appropriate.

“Who gets to see these (camera feeds)? How long do you store them? Those are legitimate privacy concerns that we have an obligation to address," he said.

"But whether the people of this city want those cameras, there is no doubt that it was the most popular reaction from the residents of the neighborhoods of everything I had to say,” Duggan said.

Willie Bell, chairman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, said the board endorses Duggan's plan.

"We're supportive," Bell said. "We're just talking about the cameras on traffic lights, and it's only for when there's an incident, and they need to pull up the video."

But Williams, a Detroit-based attorney working with the ACLU, said he has several unanswered questions about Duggan's plan.

“Just saying you now have the capability of (tracking) somebody, what’s the criteria for doing that?" he asked. "Will it be logged? Will people be notified that they’ve been (tracked)? What penalties are there for misuse? Is information going to be shared with other law enforcement agencies?

"The city may have ideas about it, but certainly haven’t shared those with anyone,” he said.

Beyond that, Williams contends, the city hasn’t shown that Green Light is even effective. 

“In the absence of any evidence that Project Green Light works, what is the justification of expanding it in a way that really imperils civil liberties?” Williams asked. "Live surveillance hasn’t proven to be effective at all, particularly at the level we’re talking about — citywide.”

Craig agreed there's no way to quantify crimes deterred by Project Green Light.

"It's true that I can't definitely tell you how many crimes have been prevented, but based on my training and experience, I believe it's been significant," he said. "The statistics support that there's been a reduction in violent crimes in and around Green Light locations. But to ask me how many actual crimes were prevented, there's no way to tell you that."

City officials said the initial phase of the plan calls for cameras to be installed and linked to the Real-Time Crime Center at 11 intersections near Greenfield and Seven Mile this year at a cost of about $1.1 million. Another 400 cameras are expected to be installed in 2020.

The program will be paid for with $5.4 million in federal transportation funds, with an additional $3.5 million coming from state transportation funds, city spokeswoman Tiffany Crawford said.

“Our hope is that over the next 18 months, we will have installed 1,000 cameras, which is a combination of Green Light cameras, existing cameras and newly installed cameras,” she said. 

Crawford added the cameras will not be used for traffic enforcement, but to monitor traffic trends.

Detroit Public Works director Ron Brundidge said there are 121 cameras mounted on 787 "smart" traffic lights that were installed last year. He said DPW employees are already monitoring the video feeds.

"The (Real Time Crime Center) has a separate area for DPW," he said. "We're currently monitoring the traffic signals with cameras on them. That helps us determine if we need to make changes in timing (of stop lights), and it provides us with immediate alerts if a signal malfunctions. Also, it allows us to collect data, such as the volume of vehicles and pedestrians who are going through these intersections."

Detroit neighborhood police officer Karen Maxey stops and visits with James Jackson, right, and neighbors Audrey Carter and Harry Jolliffi, as they discuss the cameras they have on their homes for protection in Detroit, Michigan on March 15, 2019.  (Image by Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

During his State of the City address, Duggan pointed to a "terrifying" ordeal last month involving a mother who was carjacked near Interstate 94. The woman was able to get her 1-year-old son out of the car before the carjacker drove off. 

"He drove off on the 94 service drive. No cameras. We don't have any," Duggan said during his address. "These holes in the system are preventing us from being effective."

The new program, he said, will make people think twice about committing crimes.

"We're going to make people make different decisions on what they want to do," he said.

Resident Ray Rutyna, 72, doesn't endorse Duggan's plan because, he said, "I don't know how much good it would do."

"It doesn't really go into the neighborhoods; it's just at intersections with stoplights," said Rutyna, who lives on the city's east side. "If I had to vote on this, I'd probably vote it down because it just doesn't seem like it would work, since most crimes aren't committed at intersections."

James Jackson of Detroit, 70, shows off a sign that residents are allowed to post around the neighborhood, advising that cameras are present.  Jackson, as well as neighbors Audrey Carter and Harry Jolliffi, behind him, have cameras on their houses for protection.

But fellow east side resident James Jackson, 70, said he supports the plan.

"It's a great idea," said Jackson, an ex-cop who has mounted surveillance cameras on his house and throughout his neighborhood to help deter crime. "I know people say they're worried about privacy, but your privacy ends the minute you walk out your front door. We're only following in the footsteps of what other cities do."

Linking networks of surveillance cameras to law enforcement agencies has long been the practice in Europe, and more U.S. cities are adopting it. Chicago in 2017 began a surveillance program that allows police to tap into about 30,000 government-operated closed-circuit cameras.

In New York, police in 2012 adopted a surveillance program called the “Domain Awareness System” that allows officers to monitor some 6,000 surveillance cameras.

But increased surveillance brings concerns about privacy. In Seattle last year, police scrapped their surveillance program after complaints that the initiative allowed officers to track cellphone use.