The Detroit Police Department is seeking to expand its surveillance network by doubling the number of intersection traffic cameras that automatically capture photos of passing vehicles.
The Board of Police Commissioners, a civilian oversight body, held a public hearing Thursday on a proposed $5 million contract with Motorola Solutions that would be partially paid for with $3.8 million in federal pandemic relief funds. If approved by City Council, the contract would add 100 cameras to 25 intersections across the city. DPD has used automatic license plate readers since 2018. Police have 83 stationary cameras at intersections, 110 mobile cameras mounted on 55 police vehicles, three mobile trailers with cameras and 33 other cameras.
Tawana Petty, a Detroiter and director of policy at the Algorithmic Justice League, said layering license plate readers on top of Project Green Light cameras, Shotspotter audio devices and facial recognition technology furthers a “mass surveillance” state in Detroit.
“The walls are shrinking, and soon no one will be able to navigate the city without being targeted,” Petty said Thursday.
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Deputy Police Chief Franklin Hayes said more cameras are needed to address a surge in auto thefts. Hayes said the department recorded 666 more stolen vehicles this year over this point last year – the most popular targets of theft are Chevy Trailblazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chrysler 300. Hayes said cameras would help locate stolen cars and where those vehicles are being stripped for parts.
“This crime isn’t going down, it’s a trend that we are doing something to combat,” Hayes told the board Thursday.
Commissioners posed questions to Hayes about the technology but did not take any action to recommend its approval Thursday. A contract is pending before Detroit City Council to be voted on at a later date.
Commissioner Linda Bernard said she sees “significant problems” with the technology and “the way myself and my colleagues have addressed technology issues in the past.”
“We hear from the (police) chief’s office ‘rah rah rah this is what we need,’ but we never speak to those organizations that are looking at the constitutionality of these things, how they operate in real life and in other cities,” Bernard said.
The board is considering adding language to an oversight report required by a Detroit law, which would commit DPD to regularly audit data collected by license plate cameras and prohibit other law enforcement agencies from using Detroit data for immigration enforcement.
How does it work?
License plate readers are always on and take an image of every vehicle that passes them. An alert is triggered at the DPD Real-Time Crime Center when cameras identify a license plate number matching a list of stolen vehicles, prompting officers to respond.
DPD policy prohibits license plate readers from being used to collect photographs of individuals, enforce traffic violations or track a person’s movements when outside a vehicle. However digital images can be used to identify drivers and passengers and track past locations, according to a DPD report.
Residents who attended the Thursday hearing at Crowell Recreation Center on Detroit’s west side were largely opposed to what they characterized as dangerous technology with a potential for privacy and civil rights abuse. Around a dozen Detroiters protested the contract before the meeting and called on commissioners to resign as they entered the building.
“As a Black person, and for our children, you see everyday that to even drive a car is scary because you never know if you’re going to come back home,” said Bobbi Johnson, president of the Franklin Park Community Alliance. “I don’t trust (police).”
Garbrielle Dresner, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Michigan, said the vast majority of passing vehicles are not associated with any crime, and innocent residents shouldn’t be subject to surveillance.
“Gathering and storing data on people who are simply going about their daily lives is invasive governmental overreach,” Dresner told the board. “The right to privacy is fundamental to a free society, and warrantless dragnet surveillance from (license plate readers) is a violation of that right.”
Chief James White advocated for the contract during a March budget hearing, telling 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.
Dresner raised concerns Thursday about police databases that can be accessed by other law enforcement agencies and third-party entities. Hayes argued victims of auto theft would likely appreciate it if police in other areas can spot a stolen vehicle.
Hayes did not have a list of third-party agencies that have access to the DPD database, but said other entities are prohibited from selling Detroit’s data. Police commissioners said they were provided information by Detroit Action, a nonprofit political advocacy organization, suggesting 2,000 government agencies and private firms can access DPD data.
All data is owned by DPD, according to the department, and will be retained for up to a year. Any hits that are not used in a criminal investigation will be automatically deleted within 90 days.
DPD policy states information won’t be gathered about any person solely on the basis of religious, political, or social views; participation in noncriminal organizations or lawful events; or race, ethnicity, citizenship, age, disability, gender or sexual orientation. But Dresner said location data can still reveal details about all kinds of activities and affiliations.
“It is not a difficult leap to jump from who is driving the car to what they’re doing, where they are going and who they are,” Dresner said.
Christine Sauve, a member of Detroit’s immigration task force and a community engagement specialist with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, raised concerns about federal agencies obtaining access to DPD databases. Sauve said the police board should obtain written assurances that DPD will refuse to share information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or store information in databases ICE agents can access.
A city report shows the system “seamlessly connects” with Vigilant PlateSearch software. The ACLU found ICE was provided license plate data by police departments across the country through Vigilant databases.
However, DPD policy states information cannot be used or shared with other agencies to enforce federal immigration laws.
Surveillance business boom
License plate readers are provided to Detroit through contracts with Flock and Genetec. The latest proposed contract is with Motorola Solutions, which has shifted its business from mobile communications to surveillance in the last decade. Once known for cellphones, the Chicago-based company invested millions to acquire companies that provide an array of surveillance tools.
Motorola and Flock collectively serve 3,000 communities across the country, according to a January policy memo published by the University of Michigan. Motorola states that they have an active database containing over 44 billion license plate records, according to the memo.
As the industry grows, cities across the country are embracing license plate readers at a quick pace. Metro Detroit law enforcement agencies have adopted the technology, according to a Detroit News report, including Warren, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Southfield, Ecorse, Lincoln Park, Troy, Sterling Heights, Chesterfield Township, Van Buren Township, Grosse Ile, Grosse Pointe Park, Metro Airport Police, Michigan State Police and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.
A 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found the cameras are used by two-thirds of large police agencies across the country – tripling in the previous decade.
“Although (license plate reader) are still primarily used to detect and recover stolen automobiles in patrol, their use has expanded into other types of investigative and security functions,” the report states. “Despite the increased use and numbers of (license plate readers) in policing, their use is highly discretionary and infrequently tracked. Thus, (license plate readers) continue to be widely used in law enforcement, despite a lack of strong research evidence for their crime prevention benefits.”
Several residents said Detroit is always a top target when new surveillance technology is ready to hit the market. Detroiters at Thursday’s meeting also drew comparisons to gunshot detection devices provided by SoundThinking, formerly known as ShotSpotter, which scored $8.5 million in contracts with Detroit last year.
“There’s a pattern here,” said Scotty Bowman, founder of Detroit Residents Advancing Civilian Oversight and a District 4 community advisory council member. “Every time there is a new surveillance technology brought before this board, and the City Council for that matter, it passes … Someone’s getting rich off the technology. That’s the point.”
Detroiters broadly questioned the effectiveness of surveillance tools, noting that an unlicensed gas station where three people were shot last week was a Project Green Light partner.
Commissioner Bernard suggested the police board was given a one-sided view of SoundThinking’s effectiveness last year.
“The board was taken down a primrose path when it is deeply flawed and has been proven in Chicago and other cities,” Bernard said. “We want to hear both sides of this equation, and when we don’t do that we make grievous mistakes like obviously (SoundThinking) is, based on even your data.”
Hayes argued DPD has found SoundThinking to be “most certainly effective.” He argued the tool has helped police identify shootings they wouldn’t have otherwise known about and increased DPD’s response time to gunshot incidents.
DPD’s report on its uses of license plate readers, fiscal impact and potential civil rights concerns was released in compliance with a Detroit law requiring oversight of surveillance technology contracts. However, the report states the oversight ordinance “may not apply” to the contract, due to a “carve out” in the law for surveillance technology that has been previously approved.
A pending lawsuit against the city focuses on whether the law applies to the expansion of surveillance tools that are already in use. Corporation Counsel Charles Raimi argued City Council approve contracts for surveillance technology regardless of whether members follow the ordinance.
Tristan Taylor, an activist and co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, said Raimi’s comments were “troublesome,” and raises larger questions about whether police will abide by its ordinances.
Public comments or suggestions about LPRs and surveillance technology are welcome at public meetings or by email to email@example.com.