Detroit council to vote on two controversial surveillance technologies

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on contracts for gunshot detection technology and the installation of hundreds of traffic-mounted cameras, two technologies that have spurred public outcry over concern they could be discriminatory or infringe on privacy. 

Detroit police are seeking approval of a four-year, $1.5 million contract for the use of the sound sensor system ShotSpotter. The software detects and alerts police of gunfire and is making a return in the city as part of a federal crackdown on violence. 

Gregg Rowland, senior vice president of ShotSpotter, demonstrates the gunshot location system in 2011 at the Detroit Police Eastern District station.

If approved, the city expects to deploy the system from California-based SST over six square miles in the Eighth and Ninth police precincts in the first quarter of next year, where it previously was used during a 15-month pilot. The move is part of Operation Legend, a Trump administration effort that's brought dozens of federal agents to Detroit to root out guns and gangs.

For subscribers:Feds want listening sensors embedded in neighborhoods to curb Detroit violence

Detroit Police Capt. Aric Tosqui said Monday the notion that the sensors are listening to neighborhoods and police will be able to infringe on civil rights is "not possible." The police administration, he added, is working with the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners on a policy for increased protections. 

"There's absolutely no cameras included in this contract. This contract has nothing to do with facial recognition," Tosqui said. "If there's no gunshot detected, the audio is deleted within 30 hours."

Also Tuesday, the council is expected to vote on a separate contract from the Duggan administration for the installation of 200 traffic light-mounted cameras at city intersections. The technology has sparked concerns from members of the community who questioned at public meetings whether it could be used to target certain individuals or for ticketing. 

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

City public works officials said although the cameras can be used by Detroit police to gather information in crime-fighting efforts, including identifying similar-looking vehicles linked to an accident, they cannot identify people or license plates.

The traffic-mounted cameras will provide real-time notifications of power outages from weather or crashes, to remotely adjust signal timing during events, closures and crashes, and to improve safety for pedestrians and vehicles.

The $3.9 million initiative builds off of a 121-camera pilot, resulting in the technology being deployed to more than 300 of the city's 787 lights by October 2021.

The Duggan administration said has said that 2,074 people were seriously injured or killed in traffic incidents in the city from 2014 to 2018.

Detroit Public Works Director Ron Brundidge reiterated Monday the concerns over the prospect of the cameras being used to read license plats or issue tickets, stressing it won't be the case.

"I just want to say for the record, this technology does not have that capability," he told the committee.

Further, any proposed changes in future use would require an entirely new contract to go before the council.

The debate over the traffic-mounted camera expansion and redeployment of ShotSpotter comes after the council's fall approval of the contentious upgrade for facial recognition software used by Detroit police to fight crime in the nation's most violent city.

On Monday, Detroit resident Eric Blount, an ongoing opponent of surveillance, urged council members against approving ShotSpotter, calling it another "lock-'em-up tool" for police. 

Resident Stephen Boyle expressed distrust over the technology capturing conversations and advised against it, citing "well-being and peace of mind."

"There's more and more mental stress with all the surveillance technology," he said.

The Public Health and Safety committee's Monday vote moves both contracts to Tuesday's formal session for consideration prior to the council's winter recess. 

Detroit police officials have said the department already was planning to bring ShotSpotter back before the federal partnership. The administration several years ago didn't press for a contract for the technology, saying it wasn't a top priority at the time.

The four-year agreement will cost about $371,000 per year and include use of the detection system over 6.48 square miles.

Targeted will be the eighth and ninth precincts. Tosqui said they are two of the city's most volatile, with the highest amount of calls for service and crimes. In an 84-day span from June 9 to Sept. 1, the Ninth Precinct had 65 shootings while the Eighth had 70. 

Detroit police first deployed it in a three-square-mile section of the east side as a pilot in 2014. Under the study, SST provided the technology for free, recording 8,896 gunshots in 15 months. The data revealed that a gun was fired every four hours in Detroit's 48205 ZIP code, with 49% of the incidents involving two or more shots.

Tosqui said the operation resulted in nine felony arrests, 18 search warrants, 30 weapons recovered and 571 rounds of ammunition being collected. 

Community outreach efforts will be used in conjunction with the software, Tosqui said. Within three days of the shots going off or a notification, police will engage with residents and pass out door hangers. 

Councilman Scott Benson on Monday noted he was supportive of ShotSpotter during the pilot and is pleased that the community outreach portion of the program, which was initiated by his office in 2015, will again be used under the currently proposed contract. 

SST urged Detroit in 2016 to broaden its use in violent neighborhoods and to cover the annual cost. SST, at the time, proposed that the city pay up to $1.2 million per year to expand to another 16 square miles. 

In 2011, former Mayor Dave Bing first tried to install ShotSpotter, pushing for a three-year, $2.6 million contract. The City Council rejected the measure, 5-4, with opposing members saying they wanted to direct the dollars toward hiring more officers. 

ShotSpotter data will feed into Detroit's Real Time Crime Center and Detroit police will respond to the shooting scenes, Tosqui said. 

In Michigan, ShotSpotter has been used in Flint and Saginaw. It's currently used in more than 100 cities nationwide, including New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Denver.