On Metro Detroit roads, Big Brother not usually watching
More than 2,000 cameras are on Metro Detroit's freeways and roads, but almost none are recording at any given moment, and rarely is what's captured by the roadway cameras used for law enforcement purposes.
Most of the cameras are placed by the Michigan Department of Transportation -- which monitors state trunklines and freeways -- and road commissions in Oakland and Macomb counties, which monitor main road intersections.
MDOT has 300 cameras on freeways in Metro Detroit and 600 statewide, said spokeswoman Diane Cross. Four of the cameras in Metro Detroit, as chosen by staff at the Southeast Michigan Transportation Operations Center, are always recording, for trainingpurposes. For instance: in the case of a fender-bender in the middle of a freeway, officials should instruct that the cars involved be moved to the shoulder, not kept in the roadway.
The only other recording done is at the specific request of law enforcement, which officials say is a relative rarity. No such requests were made in 2016, officials said.
But it does happen.
Five years ago, Raulie Castile fired shots at motorists on the Interstate 96 corridor. Lt. Mike Shaw, a Michigan State Police spokesman, said that the shootings didn't actually occur on I-96, just near it but State Police requested that MDOT record footage on freeways in the area, so police could look for vehicles common to shooting scenes, and any other clues.
Castile was caught and convicted and isn't eligible for release until November 2030.
"When we ask for them to be turned on, they are turned on," Shaw said. "There's no sense to have it run 24 hours a day; there's just not a large amount of crime that occurs on the freeway system. But we do have the capability."
John Abraham, director of traffic operations for the Macomb County Road Commission, said Michigan's third-largest county does sometimes get law enforcement requests to record on its 230-plus roadway cameras.
"Warren Police Department wanted us to record on southbound Mound -- a car had been involved in a number of carjackings. They had a description and wanted to find if the car was leaving the county on Mound Road. We recorded a weekends' worth of video so they could do their investigation."
That contrasts with Wayne County. The county road commission does monitor the MDOT freeway cameras within county limits. But it hasn't placed any of its own cameras on roadways, said spokeswoman Whitney Lewis.
In Oakland County, concerns that Big Brother was watching were expressed when roadway cameras first went up in 1992, and remain concerns 25 years later, said Craig Bryson, spokesman for the Oakland County Road Commission.
"Our charter is not law enforcement," Bryson said. "Our philosophy has always been that we don't record. We'd be inundated by (Freedom of Information Act) requests. We're not Big Brother, we're not watching you. We don't care what you're doing in the car or who you're with."
Some 750 intersections in Oakland County are on a video-image detection system called FAST-TRAC, which stands for Faster and Safer Travel through Routing and Advanced Controls. This accounts for 1,300 cameras, which the Oakland road commission says is the "largest vehicle detection system in the world for traffic management."
But that's what it's used for -- traffic management.
"The cameras record images of the vehicles passing through the intersection," a primer on the Fast-Trac program states. "However, no human sees the images." Computers analyze the image, comparing it to other images in the program's memory to determine the flow of traffic.
Oakland County also has, at about 60 well-traveled intersections, a closed circuit recording program. Those cameras, which cover intersections such as Maple and Livernois and Grand River and Novi Road, might someday be opened to law enforcement use, but haven't been yet. That closed circuit camera program is newer, within the last three years, Bryson said.
The closed-circuit cameras allow engineers working in Pontiac "to look at an intersection in Novi or Rochester Hills and not have to drive out there if there's a malfunction," Bryson said. "It's saved a lot of time of engineers driving out, often in rush hour."
But someday law enforcement will have access to those cameras, Bryson said.
"Once we feel comfortable with the technology, we're going to offer police agencies the opportunity to tap into our videos so they can see them, and if they want to record, they can," Bryson said. "That might happen within a couple of years."
On West Fort Street, in downtown Detroit just west of the Lodge Freeway, state police and MDOT share space at the Southeast Michigan Transit Operations Center, or SEMTOC.
At SEMTOC, two agencies both tasked with protecting motorists take emergency calls, monitor the roadways, and direct police or emergency resources to stranded motorists. Staff on the MDOT side crunch data, dispatch courtesy patrol vans, which are only available in greater Southeast Michigan, program electronic signs on freeways and spread information to the public via social media. Several TV screens on the wall of monitors are tuned to news stations.
SEMTOC recently played host to some 40 law enforcement agencies, from both sides of the Detroit River, during the recent Free Press Marathon in downtown Detroit. Agencies shared their video feeds in a conference room overlooking the control room. The marathon went on without incident.
Sarah Gill, an operations engineer for MDOT who works at SEMTOC, explained that freeway footage, while useful for internal training purposes, wouldn't necessarily yield much else.
MDOT cameras are 85 to 90 feet in the air, Gill explained. They show only about a mile of roadway. And when it's dark outside, the images, viewable to the public MDOT's MI Drive website, appear dark.
"Even when we have video, you don't even see the crash happen," Gill said.