Detroit resident Anthony Williams, right, listens to a May 4, 2023, court hearing on a lawsuit focused on civilian oversight of surveillance contracts. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

Detroit’s top lawyer is arguing that the City Council can approve contracts for surveillance technology regardless of whether members follow an ordinance which guarantees public oversight of how those tools are used.

Corporation Counsel Charles Raimi and attorneys representing Detroit residents who sued the city last November outlined their arguments in a Thursday hearing before Wayne County Circuit Court Judge David Allen. The lawsuit centers around whether City Council illegally approved contracts with SoundThinking, previously known as ShotSpotter Inc., to expand controversial gunshot detection software across the city

“Even if there had been complete disregard for the ordinance, City Council had the ability to approve the procurement,” Raimi said during the Thursday virtual hearing. “The reason is that they are the decision-maker on procurements.” 

Detroit enacted a law in 2021 that requires city departments to submit a Surveillance Technology Specification Report along with procurement requests. Attorneys who sued the city argue the Detroit Police Department failed to publish the report before the first opportunity for public comment on the contracts in June 2022. 

The report wasn’t made public until Sept. 28, 2022, a day after the council approved the $1.5 million contract extension. The month after, the council voted to approve a $7 million contract expanding gunshot detection services. 

Attorneys with the Detroit Justice Center, Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice and Schulz Law PLC argue residents were deprived of key information that would have helped shape public opinion on police surveillance tools. They’re aiming to nullify two contracts worth $8.5 million that were approved last year.

The lawsuit carries broader implications for the expansion of police surveillance in Detroit. A pending contract seeks $5 million in federal pandemic relief funds for license plate recognition cameras that collect data on vehicles. The Board of Police Commissioners, a civilian oversight body, is holding a public hearing on surveillance technology May 11 at the Crowell Recreation Center.

Allen said it’s a “scary thought” to consider that the council doesn’t need to comply with the procurement law. Allen ended the hearing with a commitment to issue a ruling on May 17. 

“If there’s an ordinance that the city council has to live up to, but yet they can ignore it, who says they don’t do it?” Allen said. “Now I can see a little more clearly the (plaintiff’s) concerns, if the optics of it is ‘well, we’ve got these rules and we don’t have to follow the rules.’ Now I’m more concerned than I was going into this.”

SoundThinking has contracts with cities across the country to cover high-crime areas with microphones to detect gunshots and alert police. Detroit’s City Council approved two contracts with SoundThinking – one to extend a contract previously approved in 2020 and another to expand listening devices to new areas across Detroit. SoundThinking did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

“It was a manipulated outcome,” John Philo, an attorney with the Sugar Law Center said during the Thursday hearing. “The point of the ordinance is to inform those citizens (about) the full scope of what’s going to happen, where it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen and how (the city is) going to address those concerns.” 

Raimi argued the Detroit Police Department “substantially” followed the ordinance, but also said the law doesn’t prevent the council from approving contracts either way. Raimi said residents who don’t feel they were provided with enough information can vote out members of the council, but the contracts should remain in place.

“The fact that the report was not posted 14 days before the first hearing in no way, shape or form deprives City Council of the ability to approve the procurement when it did,” Raimi said. 

Raimi also argued the ordinance does not apply to SoundThinking contracts because Detroit had already approved a contract with the company in 2020. Philo countered that surveillance technology procurements that predated the ordinance are required to follow the ordinance once renewed. 

A technology report on the automatic license plate readers was posted online by DPD on April 20. It states the oversight ordinance includes a “carve out” to exempt technology that has already been in use. License plate readers have been active in Detroit since 2017. 

“However, to eliminate all doubt and to ensure transparency, the (police) Department desires to comply with (the oversight ordinance),” wrote Detroit Police Chief of Staff Michael Parish. 

Activists with the American Civil Liberties Union, Detroit Action, Detroit Will Breathe and other community organizations seeking police accountability held a watch party for the Thursday hearing in southwest Detroit. Attendees alternated between groans of frustration and laughter in response to Raimi’s arguments.

“It’s really about giving the public the information they need to engage with City Council deliberations adequately,” said Ramis Wadood, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan. “It’s pretty clear, as the lawsuit highlights, that the public doesn’t have the right information, and that the police department moved forward with this contracting process without seeking the necessary public input.”

Alejandro Navarrete, research director with social justice nonprofit Detroit Action, said activists will be pushing for reforms to the surveillance oversight ordinance. Navarrete said the ordinance should include a claw-back provision that prevents surveillance technology from being used if the city doesn’t follow permissible uses outlined in oversight reports. Navarrete said the city should also ban the use of federal pandemic funds for surveillance contracts. 

Allen opened the Thursday hearing by questioning Philo about whether the listening devices should be considered surveillance technology. Philo argued the ordinance specifically categorizes “gunshot detection and location hardware and services” as surveillance. 

Allen also ruminated on how valuable gunshot alerts are to police and whether listening devices are harmful to residents when “the whole city is surveilled.” Allen referenced a 12-point plan DPD unveiled last month to curb violence downtown, which included more police manpower, walkthrough weapon scanners and a network of surveillance cameras.  

“Are you going to go to Greektown where they’re going to have cameras, they’re going to have big screen TVs where your picture is going to be up on a big screen, metal detectors, surveillance of all type – and we’re worried about a gunshot detection technology,” Allen said. “What’s the harm? How about Project Green Light? … If I come out of the courthouse and pick my nose, I’m on camera.” 

SoundThinking has come under scrutiny for its ability to accurately differentiate gunshots from other loud noises and its impact on civil liberties. Chicago’s Office of Inspector General found over 90% of SoundThinking alerts did not result in evidence of a gun-related crime, investigatory stop or firearm recovery. The use of SoundThinking technology in Chicago also negatively impacted the way police interacted with people in areas where alerts were frequent, according to the report.

Another study in St. Louis found SoundThinking did not reduce violent crime over a 10-year period, while increasing demand on police resources. A study covering 68 large metropolitan counties found SoundThinking had no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes over a 17-year period.

Several cities – including San Antonio, Atlanta and Dayton, Ohio – canceled their contracts, while the new mayor of Chicago has pledged to terminate its contract. 

Police Chief James White and Mayor Mike Duggan championed the technology as a vital part of Detroit’s strategy to reduce gun violence. White last year argued 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 also said SoundThinking alerts help police recover shell casings and other evidence which can be linked to other gun crimes. 

In an emailed statement to BridgeDetroit Friday a spokesperson for DPD said SoundThinking devices remain a valuable tool for the department. The technology gives residents confidence that officers will respond to every shot fired in the city, the statement reads, and does not require a community that is desensitized to gunfire to call 911 for a police response.

As of April 30, SoundThinking alerts are connected to 1,020 police reports, with officers making 141 arrests and recovering 200 firearms, the statement notes.

The DPD oversight report on how SoundThinking’s technology will be used does not say it’s meant to help reduce gun crimes.

Regardless, Philo said the effectiveness of SoundThinking devices has no bearing on the case. The case, he said, is about whether Detroit is following laws that govern the purchase of surveillance technology.

Philo argued DPD issued a flawed report on SoundThinking devices, since it contained inaccurate information about the source of funds and did not fully address concerns related to civil liberties, data retention and potential adverse impacts. The $7 million contract was originally meant to be covered with American Rescue Plan Act funds, but public concerns spurred DPD to pay for the contract from its own budget. This change wasn’t reflected in the surveillance report. 

Philo argued that the report relied heavily on SoundThinking marketing materials, which does not fulfill the ordinance’s disclosure requirements. The lack of transparency makes it difficult for residents to gauge potential negative consequences of surveillance technology, he said during the hearing. 

Raimi told the judge that Detroit complied with most of the requirements of the ordinance, including providing documents and information to the council and explaining the technology to neighborhood groups in dozens of meetings before the vote. Raimi also challenged whether residents have legal standing. 

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, Sarah Torres. The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, a nonprofit community organization, was also listed in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed against the city, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit Police Chief James White, the Detroit Police Department, Detroit Chief Deputy CFO and Finance Director John Naglick and Detroit Chief Procurement Officer Sandra Stahl.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *