Surveillance center is poor use of police funds

The Detroit News

The Detroit Police Department wants to access private security cameras throughout the city to monitor potential crime activity in real time. Camera feeds would route to a main monitoring center, which would cost at least $5 million to build, and an unknown amount to keep operational.

The city and police department are still strapped for cash, so spending should be reserved for the most effective resources to fight crime. And this doesn’t seem an efficient use of department resources.

Real-time surveillance doesn’t guarantee a decrease in crime or cost savings, and it also creates a new level of legal ambiguity for privacy and criminal prosecution.

Any extra funds the department can find should go toward training more officers and putting them on Detroit’s streets rather than creating a web of private cameras.

It is possible real-time monitoring could produce quicker arrests in some cases, and with Detroit’s still-high crime rates, that’s important. But to really make an impact on Detroit’s immediate crime levels, the department must focus on improving response times, period.

That takes more manpower.

Mayor Mike Duggan and Chief James Craig have both stated the department is doing all it can to recruit new officers and move officers out from behind desks. They’ve made some progress on that by planning to add 200 officers to the streets this year.

But as of February, response times for calls other than high-priority were 17 minutes, still six minutes above the national average.

A 2011 Urban Institute study evaluated the effectiveness of real-time surveillance videos in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Results varied, but were not conclusive enough to prove cameras are made a significant difference in reducing crime.

The study notes that across the cities, “stakeholders…stressed the cost of installation, maintenance and monitoring, which turned out to be much higher than the cost of the cameras themselves.”

In all three cities, certain neighborhoods experienced a shift in the location of criminal activity, from within to outside the camera’s range of vision. Some neighborhoods had no change in crime, others had a decrease. In D.C., the cameras had no effect in total.

The study also concluded active monitoring produced the best results but requires far more man hours and resources.

Beyond costs, real-time surveillance introduces myriad legal and privacy concerns.

Detroit neighborhood associations would give the department permission to access cameras. But it's unclear if permission would be from every resident — or, for that matter, visitor — on the street within the camera’s view. There's also concern about homes that fall within the camera’s range being under constant watch.

Further, real-time surveillance exposes non-criminals to potential abuse. The ACLU notes surveillance systems can be misused for criminal purposes, or to enable discriminatory targeting or voyeurism.

Those threats aren’t hypothetical, either. In 2001, it was discovered Michigan law enforcement was using a statewide information system reserved for criminal justice agencies to stalk women, threaten motorists and track estranged spouses.

Real-time cameras offer useful help in making arrests and solving crimes, but they don’t necessarily deter crime or improve response times. And right now, that’s what Detroit needs.