Detroit residents with signs protesting expansion of gunshot detection technology
Detroit residents protest the expansion of gunshot detection technology before a Sept. 9, 2022, City Council meeting. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

Contracts that expanded divisive gunshot detection technology in Detroit were protected by a judge who found the city obeyed a law enacted to ensure public oversight of surveillance tools.

A group of Detroit residents sued the city last November with the goal of nullifying two contracts worth $8.5 million with SoundThinking, previously known as ShotSpotter Inc., to expand devices that listen for gunfire sounds across the city. The residents argued the city didn’t meet its legal requirements to disclose usage policies and civil rights concerns before the City Council approved the agreements. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge David Allen issued an oral opinion Wednesday dismissing the complaint, finding the city did follow the law. 

Related: Detroit’s lawyer says City Council doesn’t need to follow surveillance law

“The city has pledged fidelity to the ordinance and this court will hold the city accountable to that pledge,” Allen said. “The court believes that, in a general way, it’s not really accurate to suggest the city hid the ball from citizens in material respects, or that citizens were ill-informed by the city or provided little or no opportunity to be heard.” 

However, Allen did rule against the city’s “chilling” argument to dismiss the case on claims the residents lacked legal standing to bring the issue to his courtroom. Allen applauded Detroiters for attempting to hold the city accountable and their vigilance of “our government’s continued encroachments on our right to privacy and civil liberties.” 

“The executive and legislative branches do not have unfettered authority to determine whether their actions comport with their own rules,” Allen said. “Unchecked governmental action by the very people that empower and fund government is the first dark step toward tyranny. Not only does the plaintiff have standing in this court, this court’s doors are always open to plaintiffs in this matter and like matters.” 

Corporation Counsel Charles Raimi previously argued that the City Council can approve contracts for surveillance technology regardless of whether it follows the ordinance. Raimi said the council could have had “complete disregard” for the ordinance and still approve the contract. Raimi declined a request for comment Wednesday. 

Nancy Parker, a managing attorney with the Detroit Justice Center, said the affirmation of residents’ right to bring lawsuits against the city is a major win, despite the failed attempt to cancel Detroit’s contracts with SoundThinking. Parker said the legal team has not decided whether to appeal the judge’s decision. 

“That standing piece is critical,” Parker said. “Now, anytime the city government does not do what it’s supposed to do, residents can file a lawsuit and seek redress. That was a very solid win for us and it was lasting.” 

Attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of a group of Detroiters who live in neighborhoods where ShotSpotter is deployed, including John Eagan, Sammie Lewis, Michael and Phillip Shane and Sarah Torres. The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, a nonprofit community organization, was also listed in the lawsuit. 

Allen acknowledged the plaintiffs by name, saying communities “would be in much better shape” if there were more residents like them. 

“Suffice to say, in a society obsessed with the bread and circus of the modern American world of sports and entertainment, plaintiffs and their counsel have this court’s great respect; win, lose or draw,” Allen said. “Thank you for paying attention to what your government is doing with your tax dollars.” 

Detroit enacted a law in 2021 requiring city departments to submit a Surveillance Technology Specification Report when seeking new contracts. The reports must be made available to the public 14 days before hearings or meetings are held on the proposed contract. 

The residents who sued argued the Detroit Police Department failed to publish the report before the first opportunity for public comment in June 2022. The report wasn’t made public until Sept. 28, 2022, a day after City Council approved a $1.5 million contract extension to retain the listening devices in two police precincts. One month later, the council voted to approve a $7 million contract expanding gunshot detection services to other precincts. 

​​Raimi said the ordinance does not apply to SoundThinking contracts because Detroit had already approved a contract with the company in 2020. The ordinance states permission to acquire surveillance technology doesn’t have to be sought when the capabilities “do not differ in any significant way from a previously-approved version of an equivalent surveillance technology.” 

Allen said there’s a strong argument that the ordinance doesn’t apply to extending the 2020 agreement. However, the judge said, the second contract expanding SoundThinking devices to new parts of the city did trigger the ordinance. 

Allen said there were numerous public meetings last year over several months when residents had the opportunity to hear from police about how the devices work. The specification report, he noted, was released 14 days before council approved the $7 million expansion, meeting the ordinance’s requirements.

But Parker disagreed with Allen’s interpretation of the required timeline. 

“The judge is mistakenly using the wrong benchmark,” Parker said. “It’s not 14 days prior to a vote, it’s 14 days prior to public discussion. The city had copious time to put the report out.”

Attorneys with the Detroit Justice Center, Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice and Schulz Law PLC claimed the report was incomplete and it failed to fully inform residents about the potential impact of police surveillance technology. 

Parker said the report also contained inaccurate information about the source of funds and lacked studies that called SoundThinking’s effectiveness in other cities into question. 

“​​At a bare minimum, there should have to be an acknowledgement of myriad reports and analysis and documents that have shown the issues with (SoundThinking) – that have shown this thing is not effective at reducing gun violence or as an investigative lead,” Parker said in an interview after the hearing. “How can we take that report at face value and say they gave a good faith effort to help the public make a decision?” 

Police Chief James White has said that SoundThinking devices are a vital part of Detroit’s strategy to reduce gun violence. White last year said the audio sensors have led to a decline in violent crime, though there has been no independent study of SoundThinking’s impact on Detroit. White says SoundThinking alerts police to shootings that are not reported by residents and helps officers collect evidence which can be linked to other crimes. 

SoundThinking alerts are connected to 1,020 police reports this year, with officers making 141 arrests and recovering 200 firearms, as of April 30. 

Allen said the city could have elaborated and provided more specificity on data retention policies and civil rights concerns, but ultimately found the report was sufficient. 

“Perhaps more precision may have been prudent, but while this court exists to make sure the other branches follow the rules, this court doesn’t act to be editor-in-chief of every word of every report that the government is required to produce,” Allen said. Allen said there are lingering questions about whether the listening devices qualify as surveillance in the first place. 

“In the end, (SoundThinking) is something that doesn’t take names, it doesn’t take faces, it doesn’t take location of people, there’s no biometric markers,” Allen said. “The court has to ask: who is it that is being surveilled? The city is surveilling noise in the public arena. There is very little expectation of privacy from noises in the public arena.” 

Meanwhile, Allen said cameras used to take images of license plates and vehicles across Detroit is a much clearer example of surveillance technology. DPD is seeking a $5 million contract with Motorola Solutions that would double the number of intersection traffic cameras. 

“Today’s benign technology is tyranny’s tool tomorrow,” Allen said. “You can have my car folks, let it be stolen. I can replace my car. I can’t replace my liberty and my privacy. Once those are gone it’s much harder to get back.” 

White advocated for more license plate readers during a March budget hearing, telling the City Council the cameras only track stolen vehicles and cars used in connection to violent crimes. White said cameras aren’t used to check a person’s immigration status, warrants for overdue child support payments or enforce traffic laws.

Parker said DPD’s oversight report on license plate readers is “a joke,” because it does not cite any civil liberty concerns. Parker said departments seeking to buy surveillance technology shouldn’t be responsible for issuing an oversight report because they have a clear bias. 

“If DPD has an agenda to push this thing though they won’t be as forthright and honest,” Parker said. “They want license plate readers. I hope the Board of Police Commissioners makes (the ordinance) stronger and makes suggestions to the City Council. There’s a lot more discussion to be had about how we make this thing actually have teeth.” 

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