Detroit residents feel “watched” as talks of defunding police, facial recognition heat up

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Project Green Light sign outside of Cadieux Discount Pharmacy on Harper Avenue on Detroit’s east side. (Photo by Bryce Huffman)

Conversations around defunding police departments are happening all over the country. You can read about what defunding the police might look like in Detroit, but now is the time to examine one specific aspect of policing: surveillance. 

Detroit is no stranger to video surveillance. 

Detroit’s Project Green Light initiative launched in 2016 when Mayor Mike Duggan unearthed $50 million in unspent bond money that taxpayers pledged back in 1987. The mayor used the money for parks and public safety efforts, which he believed should include surveillance technology.

At that time, more than $7 million was pledged to the Detroit Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center. 

The goal was to equip businesses around the city with high-definition cameras that provide police with real-time footage to stop crimes like break-ins and robberies. Since then, nearly 600 Detroit businesses have enrolled in the program, which can cost anywhere from $450 to $4,800 to get cameras installed

The mayor chose to expand surveillance in Detroit in 2017 when his administration added cameras to public intersections. Until then, Project Green Light cameras were only on private property. 

At that time, the Detroit Free Press reported that the city used an additional $1.048 million to pay for traffic cameras and other surveillance equipment along with three years of maintenance and technical support, according to John Roach, director of media relations for the mayor.  

These city-owned cameras were paid for by monies to modernize federal and local traffic signals. 

Protest sign at Detroit Will Breathe’s car caravan protest outside of council members homes.

Newsrooms, universities and city governments across the country are now having discussions around the fact that Black Americans are over-policed, are more often than not victims of police brutality and killings and endure mass incarceration.

The investment in surveillance and the city’s current use of it has come under question as people are on the streets of Detroit daily to protest the over-policing and investment in racist systems that further marginalize Black people and lives.

Last week, the Detroit City Council was to vote on extending a contract that would provide an additional $220,000 for two more years of maintenance and technical support for surveillance programs. 

The vote was delayed as citywide conversations continue in the wake of recent police killings and global protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Mayor Duggan will tell you Project Green Light has helped keep the city safe. In his 2019 State of the City address, Duggan spoke about how the city is safer than it was six years ago. But he said there’s more work to be done. 

Duggan has used a story from 2018 to support his plan for neighborhood surveillance. 

On the way to school, 8-year-old Kaya caught a stray bullet in her arm, not far from a Green LIght business, according to an WXYZ report.  

“The real-time crime center immediately pulled up the pictures. They got bright color images of the shooter, they put them out to the police officers, he was arrested in an hour, he’s been convicted and he’s off the street because we had the ability to respond,” Duggan said. 

When Duggan finished his story about Kaya, many people in the crowd cheered and Duggan doubled down on his message — mass surveillance can save children. 

A Detroit woman was carjacked near I-94 with her 1-year-old in the backseat. The car thief got away. Duggan says the police could have done more to catch the thief if not for “holes in the network” which could be corrected if he was given the ability to expand Detroit’s surveillance system.

Ahmad Kaid owns the Cadieux Discount Pharmacy on Harper Avenue near I-94, not far from where Duggan’s carjacking story took place. Kaid has owned this business for about 20 months. Sometime near the time he took over, there was an attempted break-in. 

“I enrolled and it’s been effective. We haven’t had any problems since we got Green Light,” Kaid said. “And I know some people probably don’t like it, but I’m just speaking for me and my business.” 

Kaid made the same decision as nearly 600 other businesses have, installing cameras in the hopes it would prevent, or at least, with help, expediently solve future crimes. 

Detroit has a history of high crime rates. The city is consistently in the top five for highest murder rates of cities in the U.S., according to FBI crime statistics. As of 2018, Detroit had the third highest murder per capita in the country behind Baltimore and St. Louis. 

But murders aren’t the most prevalent crimes in Detroit. Property theft and auto theft are most pervasive. In 2017, nearly 13,000 cars were reported stolen. Detroit is also the poorest big city in the country. In 2018 Detroit’s poverty rate was 33.4 percent, which means a third of single people under 65 earned less than $12,760 and four-person households earned less than $26,200.

Despite the fact that hundreds of businesses joined Project Green Light, mass surveillance programs rob citizens of their civil liberties, say watchdogs.The loss of those rights, particularly right to privacy, hits hard in a city like Detroit, which has the highest percentage of Black residents of any city in America with more than 100,000 residents. 

Rodd Monts, the Campaign Outreach Coordinator at the ACLU of Michigan, says that’s precisely why his organization took so long to get involved in Detroit’s surveillance debate. 

“We’ve always been opposed to mass surveillance because of the civil rights implications it presents,” Monts said, “but we had not weighed into the Green Light issue respecting the fact that so many people in Detroit feel unsafe in their neighborhood to the point they’re willing to jeopardize their rights to have surveillance equipment installed in buildings around them.” 

Monts says that community activists here asked the ACLU to get involved last year when the contract governing the use of facial recognition technology was going before the Board of Police Commissioners. The issue created controversy as objections to the technology increased, one Commissioner, Willie Burton was arrested at that time. BridgeDetroit reached out to the Board of Police Commissioners, but hasn’t received a response. 

Tristan Taylor, activist and co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, a group created in the wake of recent police killings, organized a car caravan protest June 15 to get City Council to stop the use of facial recognition technology and end Project Green Light. 

Taylor doesn’t believe Detroit should be policed in this way and says that, City Council has an opportunity to begin to redirect resources. 

“We need City Council to take the demands of Detroiters and those fighting to defend Black and Brown bodies seriously, and to not uphold the facial recognition contract and to start defunding DPD and start demilitarizing it,” Taylor said

Taylor argues that despite city officials’ use of  these initiatives to increase safety, he believes there’s a more troubling agenda at play. 

When you do policing that way, what you’re saying is not that you’re looking to create a safe environment, you’re looking to create an environment you have control over in every aspect of,” he said. 

Tawana Petty, an author and social justice organizer, says she got involved once she learned that facial recognition was set to become a component of Project Green Light. She believes mass surveillance initiatives harm Black and brown people.

Tawana Petty, Detroit Community Technology Project

“Facial recognition tech is known to have a high rate of misidentifying Black and dark-skinned people, especially women,” Petty said. 

Facial recognition technology has an inherent problem misidentifying Black people. In fact, recently, companies like Microsoft, IBM and Amazon have scaled back their investment in and use of facial recognition software, because of troubling racial profiling evidence. 

Petty has worked with groups like Our Data Bodies and Detroit Community Technology Project to end Project Green Light and stop the use of facial recognition in the city. Our Data Bodies has worked on the ground in Detroit, Charlotte and Los Angeles to stop mass surveillance. 

Petty says she’s identified a troubling trend, Black and brown people feel “watched” because of the technology. 

“In all three cities, we saw a common theme of residents wanting to be seen and not watched, that they felt like they were constantly being watched, constantly being monitored and they didn’t want their data and their faces being used in that way,” she said. 

“There’s a national and global movement to recognize the value in Black lives and the harm law enforcement has on them right now, and Detroit, [one of] the Blackest [cities] in America, is doubling down on that, and it makes absolutely no sense,” she said. 

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield

Detroit City Council President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield is not a supporter of Project Green Light or facial recognition technology, she also believes the city must look for ways to divest in the Detroit Police Department. 

“I believe we’re at a very unique time in our country where we have the opportunity to have these very tough discussions about how we fund the Detroit Police Department,” Sheffield said.

Sheffield said the council vote on extending the surveillance contract was delayed to allow more time for community input and invited residents to share their thoughts during public comment at council meetings. 

Please let us know your thoughts about facial recognition and Project Green Light. Are you in favor of one but not the other? Reach out to us on Twitter @BridgeDet313

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