Detroit residents and transit advocates are urging the Detroit Department of Transportation to scrap a proposal to add new surveillance cameras on city buses or at bus stops, arguing it implies “we need to be watched.”
The concept is being floated as an improved safety measure during public input sessions as the department decides how it should spend $51 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. But opponents see it as another controversial tool that threatens to violate riders’ civil rights and perpetuates racial bias.
“It feels like (DDOT) is reinforcing this narrative that bus riders are violent or a problem or we are a criminal ailment, and we need to be watched and surveilled in the majority Black city,” said
Renard Monczunski, a transit justice organizer with the Detroit People’s Platform, a grassroots organization that works to build racial and economic equity in Detroit.
Monczunski spoke out against the idea Wednesday during a virtual meeting hosted by DDOT and Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit transit and mobility advocacy group, to gather feedback from Detroiters about proposed ARPA-funded projects.
While DDOT buses already have up to six cameras on them, the prospect of more surveillance for Detroit’s buses follows uproar in recent years over the police department’s use of facial recognition technology, traffic signal-mounted cameras and its controversial Project Green Light, a high-definition camera system that feeds real-time footage to police.
Mikel Oglesby, the executive director of Transit for the City of Detroit, first raised the idea during a community input session last month, saying DDOT could utilize a camera system at bus stops similar to the Project Green Light system Detroit police use throughout the city.
Monczunski told BridgeDetroit he was “disappointed and upset” over the idea along with others, including Joanne Warwick, a resident and community activist, who echoed his concerns.
“I’m not into adding more surveillance technology in Detroit,” Warwick said during Wednesday’s meeting.
The Detroit People’s Platform published a report last year that gave recommendations for how it would like to see the city spend its ARPA funds. Monczunski said a provision was added earlier this year asking that the city not spend ARPA funds on more surveillance technology.
Oglesby said the camera system would provide additional security for passengers and bus drivers.
Kristin Lukowski, the marketing and outreach coordinator for DDOT, clarified Oglesby’s remarks in an email to BridgeDetroit, stressing the technology would not be like Project Green Light, a public/private partnership with city businesses. That, she said, would “not be an option at public bus stops.”
“The concept really refers to the potential installation of video cameras at bus stops – viewable by city staff similar to traffic cameras – as an added layer of protection that could be part of general safety spending through ARPA,” Lukowski wrote. “Similar to traffic cameras, images from bus stop cameras could be retrieved by DPD after a crime occurs to help identify a suspect or to solicit the public’s help in identifying the suspect.”
Willie Mitchell, vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, which represents DDOT’s bus drivers, said the union has not talked to the transportation department about anything similar to Project Green Light. They have discussed the need for more transit police although those positions aren’t eligible for ARPA dollars.
“Transit police are very good at what they do, but they are just understaffed, like a lot of different law enforcement agencies right now,” Mitchell said.
Other ideas for spending the ARPA funds include using $20.4 million for 350 new bus shelters, $19.2 million toward 16 new transit hubs for easier connection between bus lines, and $3.1 on bus security including cameras, improved lighting at stops and for shelters.
DDOT also has proposed using $10 million of the COVID-19 relief dollars to replace ongoing fare losses and to stabilize service during fiscal year 2023. ARPA funds must be obligated by December 31, 2024, and spent by December 31, 2026, according to Lukowski.
Residents had few complaints Wednesday about the other proposed uses of the ARPA funds. Most comments were in favor of specific initiatives or ideas that hadn’t been represented in the proposals.
Rochella Stewart, a resident who works with the Detroit People’s Platform’s Transit Justice Team, said she wants to see a low-income fare rate. DDOT offers a 7-day bus pass for $17 and a 31-day pass for $50 as well as reduced fares of $8 and $17 respectively.
“This is really needed because everything is getting more expensive, but there’s homeless people and veterans who need to take the bus every day,” Stewart said.
Resident Damone Mattison said the proposed budget for the Rosa Parks Transit Center improvements should be cut in half. DDOT recommended the addition of community retail stores, a restaurant and prominent displays with bus arrival times for the transit center.
“Those funds can be moved to bus stop shelters to include real-time arrival maps, including cell phone chargers like SMART has in the suburbs,” Mattison said.
Ted Tansley, a city transit and mobility activist, said more should be done to help direct riders to accessible restroom facilities.
“I do think we need to consider a bathroom network or public bathroom network or at least wayfinding for those who do support bus riders in their bathroom needs, like businesses that will charge you to use the bathroom or businesses that would allow you to use the bathroom publicly for free,” Tansley said.
Oglesby acknowledged there’s much to be done and that the $51 million in ARPA funds “won’t be anywhere near” enough to improve the city’s bus service permanently. Improving service, he said, will take ongoing efforts that outlast the ARPA money.
Lukowski said DDOT came up with its proposals after gathering input from residents for more than 20 months.
“It is important to note that not all suggestions fall with the ARPA spending guidelines, but they will be documented should future grants become available and applicable,” Lukowski said in the email.
The Government Finance Officers Association gives a detailed list of what the ARPA funds can be spent on. Lukowski said the funds can’t be spent on pension payments, debt, pre-COVID obligations, or for increasing personnel. This, Lukowskis said, is why DDOT has mainly proposed projects that involve building or improving existing structures.
Larry Donald Verse, a Detroiter and frequent bus rider, said he likes DDOT’s proposals in principle, but none of them will make the buses run faster.
“They’re not gonna make the buses come on time, they’re simply gonna make me comfortable while I wait 55 min for a bus when I should only wait 15 or 20 minutes,” Verse said.
DDOT officials said they will plan more community input events focused on the ARPA projects.
Claire Nowak-Boyd, outreach manager for TRU, said DDOT is taking the concerns of bus riders and mobility advocates seriously in regard to its ARPA spending plan.
“So if you’re a bus rider, and you’ve got some opinions on what you’d like to see, definitely share them with DDOT,” Nowak-Boyd said.