SUBSCRIBE NOW
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.
SUBSCRIBE NOW
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.

Traffic light-mounted camera expansion in Detroit spurs privacy concerns

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

 Detroit — A $2.5 million plan to install hundreds of traffic light-mounted cameras at city intersections is getting community pushback over privacy and racial discrimination concerns. 

The addition of 200 cameras will build off of an initial 121-camera pilot, resulting in the technology being deployed to more than 300 of the city's 787 lights by October 2021, said Dayo Akinyemi, of the city's Department of Public Works. 

Akinyemi, during a Monday night public meeting on the proposal, said that public safety is a "human right," noting 2,074 people were seriously injured or killed in the city from 2014 to 2018. 

"One is too many. We have 400 every year," Akinyemi said. "What we are trying to do is find a way to make things better."

But some attendees of the virtual meeting shared worries over the cameras being used to issue tickets, infringe on people's rights or to target Black men. 

Resident Christopher Williams Shah argued the community wanted assurances that the cameras would not be misused by police, resulting in Black men landing in jail.

"I'm going to say it straight out. What I see occurring is this being used to target Black males in Detroit," he said. "Police are visual predators in Detroit."

The debate over the traffic-mounted camera expansion comes amid ongoing tensions over privacy and policing and City Council's fall approval of a controversial upgrade for facial recognition software used by Detroit police to fight crime in the nation's most violent city.

That nearly $200,000 contract with South Carolina-based DataWorks Plus — to cover costs associated with upgrades and maintenance — was approved by a 6-3 vote following protests and calls to ban the technology that opponents argued is racist.

During Monday's presentation, Akinyemi said the cameras cannot identify people or license plates and aren't like the city's Project Green Light surveillance cameras, another technology that has been contentious.

"It's not predominantly a police camera," he said. "It has a very low resolution that you cannot identify people."

The cameras can however be used by Detroit police to gather information in crime-fighting efforts, including identifying similar looking vehicles linked to an accident. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last year said he wanted police to be able to tap into video from cameras mounted on city traffic lights to investigate crimes.

The technology, officials said Monday, can be used for real-time notifications of power outages from weather or crashes, remote adjustments of signal timing during events, closures and crashes, and to improve safety for pedestrians and vehicles. 

Southwest Detroit resident Jeffrey Nolish was skeptical that the technology won't be used differently down the road.

"We might not be talking about facial recognition today, but that doesn't mean we won't broach that subject tomorrow, next week or next year," said Nolish, adding "you cannot go down these routes without having firm frameworks of anti-racism, and we need that and we need it now."

Tristan Taylor, an organizer for Detroit Will Breathe, which has organized ongoing anti-brutality protests in the city, echoed Nolish, saying there must be assurances that use of the technologies will "stay limited."

City policy limits the police department's access to traffic cameras. Police cannot use the footage to determine immigration status, use audio from the recordings or focus the cameras on flyers, handbills or other materials distributed or carried to protect First Amendment rights. 

Detroit Police Capt. Aric Tosqui said Monday that the department is governed by that policy and can only use the data for criminal investigations. Running red lights, he noted, is not a criminal activity; it's a civil infraction and also doesn't fall under the permissible uses. 

The city has had 280 criminal homicides year-to-date and 10,596 aggravated assaults, Detroit police analyst Andrew Rutebuka said. 

"To try to pick out anything just random to find and investigate, we simply don't have that type of time," he added. 

Any future changes to the traffic camera policy would have to be approved by Detroit's city council. 

Angela Bosetti called in Monday and questioned if the technology is even necessary in Detroit.

"Of all the problems that our city faces, I don’t know if getting hit by a car is necessarily one of them,” she said. "What has been the research that says this is our priority need with this money? Why aren't we asking more questions ... of all of the needs we have, why are we choosing this one?"

Resident William Tandy said another safety measure is a good thing.

“We need surveillance,” he said. “I’m just saying here as a citizen, I’m for cameras.” 

cferretti@detroitnews.com