Detroit council approves ordinance to boost transparency in surveillance camera contracts

The Detroit News

Detroit — City Council approved legislation Tuesday that seeks to bring transparency and accountability to video and camera surveillance contracts considered in Detroit.

The Community Input Over Government Surveillance Ordinance was spearheaded by President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield several years ago amid controversy over the use of facial recognition software by Detroit police.

City Council President Mary Sheffield is hosting a Saturday forum to gather resident feedback for an ordinance she plans to draft to address property overassessments in Detroit.

Sheffield has said that the ordinance is "not anti-surveillance," but it does lay out a transparent process to educate the community and allow for public input before new technology is acquired or used. The ordinance, she said, applies to all types of surveillance equipment, whether it's for traffic cameras, illegal dumping or police department initiatives.

"With surveillance technology permeating throughout all facets of our daily lives, it was important to strike a balance between the added safety it can provide with giving people a voice and injecting transparency into the procurement and use processes," Sheffield said Tuesday.

The ordinance, unanimously passed by council members, "sends a clear signal that Detroiters' civil liberties matter and that residents' input should be a factor in decisions to employ new surveillance technology in our city."

The proposal was part of a set of ordinances proposed by Sheffield coined "The People's Bills," which aim to address water affordability and inequities in housing, jobs and other quality-of-life concerns. 

Sheffield has said the law is "pro-transparency and accountability" and ensures council has adequate information when the panel is voting on surveillance technology. It also requires public hearings when technologies are proposed for use in Detroit as well as annual reporting from city departments on surveillance activities. 

Rodd Monts of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan said Tuesday when work on the ordinance began residents were worried about expanded use and the potential dangers of surveillance technologies in the city. 

Residents, Monts added, have felt that their voices weren't being heard and that they didn't have a say in how their tax dollars were being spent.

"We believe this ordinance will provide all residents greater assurance that their rights are being both respected and protected," he told council members ahead of the vote. 

The use of facial recognition software by city police has been controversial, with opponents, including the anti-brutality group Detroit Will Breathe, arguing it's unreliable and "racist."

Last fall, Detroit's council approved a $200,000 contract with DataWorks Plus to maintain and support the facial recognition software Detroit police have used to fight crime in the nation's most violent city despite calls to ban it.

Prior to voting in September, council had delayed action on the contract officials first anticipated members would be voting on in June. At that time, community concerns prompted President Brenda Jones to call on the police department to conduct more outreach and engagement. 

A December 2019 review of the industry’s leading facial recognition algorithms by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found they were more than 99% accurate when matching high-quality headshots to a database of other frontal poses.

But trying to identify a face from a video feed, especially using ceiling-mounted cameras commonly found in stores, can cause accuracy rates to plunge. Studies also have shown that facial recognition systems don’t perform equally across race, gender and age — working best on white men, with potentially harmful consequences for others.

In one high-profile case, Robert Williams, who is Black, said he was mistakenly tagged by facial recognition software as a suspected shoplifter in Detroit in 2018. 

The ACLU filed a complaint with the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners seeking a public apology from police, permanent dismissal of Williams' case and removal of Williams' information from criminal databases.

Detroit police revised the policy governing the use of the software in 2019, removing a contentious provision that allowed it to be used to scan faces in real-time if there's a terror threat. The revisions also laid out punishment for officers who abuse the system.

The rules were adopted after it had been in use by the department for about 18 months.

Crime analysts monitor their screens inside the Real-Time Crime Center at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters.

Detroit's City Council first approved a two-year, $1 million contract for facial recognition software in 2017.

Traffic mounted cameras and the city's Project Green Light surveillance technology also have proven contentious. Those against Green Light, a program that equips businesses with high-definition video cameras, lighting and extra police patrols, say it is too intrusive.

The live video from the cameras feeds into the department's Real Time Crime Center at police headquarters, where it's monitored by officers and civilians. 

A four-year evaluation of Green Light conducted by Michigan State University noted it was difficult to pinpoint the exact impact of the program on crime trends in Detroit.

Arrests for carjackings, shootings and robberies have gone up in Detroit in recent years, but MSU in its study from earlier this year couldn't determine whether the program is largely responsible for declines in robberies, carjackings and shootings in Detroit since 2016, when the program first began, or if played a smaller role along with other recent crimefighting initiatives. 

Detroit police Chief James Craig has defended Green Light, noting it was created to reduce carjackings and robberies primarily at gas stations and liquor stores, and "the results are there."