Detroit said 500 new surveillance cameras would watch cars. It looks like they're mainly after people

March 21, 2019, 11:33 AM by  Violet Ikonomova

Project Green Light surveillance monitors this McDonald's on 8 Mile and Woodward.

Detroit officials have said the primary goal of a plan to install 500 new roadside surveillance cameras is to monitor traffic trends. That police investigating crimes can later look back at the footage — which will be stored — has been framed as merely an added benefit.

But a new "citizen petition drive" organized by the Duggan administration to get residents to express support for the cameras suggests the chief intent of the $10 million proposal may indeed be to watch people. And that's a problem for critics who say the city's existing surveillance program, Project Green Light, has not been proven to drive down crime and should therefore not be funded with public dollars.

The Free Press' Allie Gross reports a notice asking community groups to "pledge support" for the expanded surveillance describes the initiative not as a plan to ease the flow of traffic, but as Duggan's "Neighborhood Real-Time Intelligence Program." 

The notice, which Deadline Detroit has since obtained, says intersections where cameras will be placed were "proritized based on crime data" along with traffic volume.

More on the content of the notice from the Freep:

"In order to continue making Detroit a safe place to live, work, and play, we are asking you to gather signatures from your neighbors pledging support for the Neighborhood Real-Time Intelligence Program," an email sent to a local nonprofit and obtained by the Free Press reads.

The email, which was sent by Martin DeNicolo of the Department of Neighborhoods, on behalf of District 7 Manager Mona Ali, explained that the program would essentially be an off-shoot of Project Green Light, a crime-fighting initiative where local businesses pay to have real-time cameras stream to the Detroit Police Department headquarters. It had a petition attached for "neighbors" to sign.

"These cameras will be installed and continuously monitored at no cost to neighborhood residents, used to focus on crimes committed with guns and carjackings, and will not be placed on residential streets," the email stated, emphasizing that the initiative was inspired by the "success" Project Green Light Detroit at "preventing crime and improving safety throughout Detroit's commercial corridors."

Block-level outreach

City representatives have also made in-person pitches. At a Boston Edison community meeting Wednesday night, District 5 manager Karla Williamson urged attendees to have their block clubs contact the mayor's office to express support, a resident who was there tells Deadline Detroit.

The roadside camera plan will cost $10 million in public money. About $1 million in bonds will cover the first round of roadside cameras — to be posted near 7 Mile and Greenfield. An additional $9 million in federal and state transportation funds will go toward putting an additional 400-plus cameras with streaming capabilities at intersections throughout the city.

The city maintained when questioned by the Free Press that the cameras are a traffic initiative first. Previously, the city has said the cameras will not be monitored in real time, though the notice contradicts that.

The campaign appears designed to allay concerns over the added surveillance, which has not on its own been shown to reduce high-level crimes.

Michigan State University researchers, who are examining the Green Light program in its totality, have preliminarily found it is responsible for a small to moderate decrease in property crimes at partner locations, but that its impact on violent crime is unclear. The improvements also cannot be attributed to the cameras directly, researchers say, as the program includes a number of variables that have been shown to drive down crime on their own. For instance, businesses are required to have adequate lighting, receive regular police visits, and have all their emergency calls automatically elevated to priority 1 status.

“There's a lot of evidence that the police department is stepping up police patrols around these businesses,” Giovanni Circo, an assistant professor at the University of New Haven and co-investigator on the MSU study, told Deadline Detroit last week. “The key question is, is Project Green Light reducing violent crime? And at this point, based on the first 86 or 87 business partners we examined, we don't have a lot of evidence to suggest there's been a decrease in violent crime and that’s actually consistent with a lot of studies that have looked at closed circuit TV cameras and their effects on violent crime.”

Dubious 'evidence'

The city said earlier this month that violent crime was down 29 percent at Green Light partners when compared to this time in 2015. That stat, however, includes businesses that recently signed up for the program — meaning some of the crime declines cannot be directly attributed to Green Light.

A seperate stat provided by the city found Green Light locations that signed on in 2016 saw violent crime decline by 11 percent a year later. Violent crime in the city as a whole also fell within in that period.

Detroit's plan to use the roadside camera footage for police investigations is locally unique. Oakland County has upgraded its traffic signals with camera capabilities, but does not store the footage due to the potential cost of public information requests.

"We intentionally do not save the footage," Craig Bryson of the Road Commission for Oakland County told Deadline Detroit. "Our concern is that we would be subpoenaed by every attorney in town for people with traffic tickets.

"I would speculate it would be very expensive to store; I would think there would be a specific additional cost."

The Duggan administration has not responded to inquiries about what that potential added cost may be.

Read more:  Detroit Free Press

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