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Detroit council approves two controversial surveillance technologies

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

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

Detroit police received 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.

The City Council on Tuesday approved contracts for a gunshot detection technology and the installation of hundreds of traffic-mounted cameras, two technologies that have spurred public outcry over concerns they could be discriminatory or infringe on privacy.

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.

Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López voted against the gunfire contract in the 8-1 vote, saying there was not enough research done into the software.

"I understand the intent of this contract," she said. "I don't want us in a situation similar to the situation we're kind of in now with facial recognition technologies which is why I'm a no. ... Nationally, in terms of doing research on such the type of data polls, it’s still somewhat new in the tech world."

Also Tuesday, the council approved a separate contract from the Duggan administration for the installation of 215 traffic light-mounted cameras at city intersections. The technology sparked concerns from members of the community who questioned at public meetings whether it could be used to target certain individuals or for ticketing.

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 a crash, 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, officials said.

Detroit tried to install the ShotSpotter technology in 2011 when former Mayor Dave Bing pushed for the city to sign a three-year, $2.6 million contract to use ShotSpotter. But the City Council rejected the measure, 5-4, because opponents said they would rather use the money to hire police officers.

Councilman Scott Benson approved the contract on Tuesday, saying it will serve as a surveillance tool to aid authorities.

“Oftentimes, if you’re in a situation where gunshots are being shot in your neighborhood, you may know who that person is and may not want to speak for fear of your own life," Benson said during the discussion. 

"So this is just another way for the community to be engaged and let people know that while the police are there and responding, the community is also watching and that we have your back."

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.

President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield voted against the traffic camera initiative without comment in the 8-1 vote. 

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

On Monday, Detroit Public Works Director Ron Brundidge pushed back against the concerns over the prospect of the cameras being used to read license plates 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 said.

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.

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

"This insatiable need to watch people of color and those who have been made poor is demonic," Blount said to the council Tuesday. "We cannot arrest our way out of poverty or into prosperity, and the fact that using the same methods we use for decades and Detroit is still the poorest big city in this country."

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_