Detroit Would Mandate Video Surveillance, Make Businesses Pay

ACLU, others concerned; live video to police from inside thousands of firms

A proposed ordinance in the city of Detroit would require certain private companies to install surveillance equipment, connected to the internet, which would allow police to watch a live video stream from both inside and outside of the establishment.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is working with the City Council on what some regard as an overly intrusive and potentially unconstitutional mandate on private businesses to install video surveillance systems.

While the mayor’s office has repeatedly defended the effectiveness of such surveillance and insists the measure would comply with all applicable laws, the proposed mandate raises questions about its legality.

Some civil liberties groups, including the ACLU of Michigan, are concerned that the ordinance would violate the constitutional rights and privacy of both business owners and patrons.

The ordinance would require businesses that are open until a certain time of night — initially 4 a.m. but possibly 10 p.m. – to participate in the Detroit Police Department’s program known as Project Green Light. Businesses currently sign up for it on a voluntary basis.

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Firms that participate in the program are required to have at least four internet-connected surveillance cameras that capture high-definition video from inside and outside their establishment. They also use strategically placed lights and signs to notify customers about the program.

The costs for an installation can run as high as $6,000 and are borne by each business. Firms must also pay $140 to $180 in monthly fees for high-speed internet and digital storage of the captured video.

The placement of cameras is determined by the police department and is intended to capture vehicle license plate numbers and the faces of individuals entering the establishment. Businesses are required to retain the video images for at least 30 days.

Detroit’s police department is also looking to integrate facial recognition technology into Project Green Light, according to The Detroit News.

The program is currently operating with 230 businesses that have opted in as of Jan. 3, according to Crain’s Detroit Business. It began in January 2016 with eight businesses.

There’s no official timeline for the City Council taking up the proposal, but according to John Roach, the mayor’s director of media relations, it may be up to a year away. That’s because the mayor wants voluntary participants to get their surveillance equipment installed before the city creates a mandate. Any mandate could affect up to 4,000 firms, according to Crain’s. Eventually, the program could be expanded to churches and multi-unit residences.

A video surveillance mandate on businesses would violate their owners’ constitutional rights, according to Detroit-based attorney Eric C. Williams, who is working with the ACLU on the issue. He said the program is problematic even if it remains optional.

Williams said he is in favor of increased police patrols, strategically placed lighting and even security cameras, as long as those cameras aren’t part of a larger surveillance network. He said surveillance networks are legally dubious and don’t work.

Additionally, Williams said, requiring the police department to have 24-hour video access to businesses could violate rights protected by the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure) and Fifth amendment (addressing due process and property rights).

Detroit already requires gas stations and used car-part resellers to have video surveillance systems to store video for at least 30 days, but it does not mandate an internet connection. The affected firms must make footage available to Detroit police during regular business hours.

The Detroit Police Department did not respond to several phone calls and emails requesting comment.

Williams also disputes the city’s claims about the efficacy of the program.

Detroit police claim that “incidents of violent crime have been reduced by 50 percent among the original 8” Project Green Light partners.

Williams says the declines have little to do with Project Green Light, and are instead due to a downward trend in Detroit’s overall crime rate. He also said there are numerous studies showing that surveillance networks don’t reduce crime or increase the number of prosecutions.

In 2012 the ACLU of Michigan released a study on video surveillance, focusing on a number of cameras placed in some Lansing neighborhoods. The study asserted that video surveillance led to “no significant impact on the rate of solving major crimes.”

Williams also worries that widespread surveillance will have a chilling effect on certain minority groups, religious groups and labor groups who feel that they’re getting undue scrutiny.

Not everyone believes Project Green Light is an invasion of privacy. An employee of New Quick Stop Market who wishes to remain unnamed says his company has had a great experience with it.

The employee said that he doesn’t believe the cameras are an invasion of privacy because they only see into areas of the business that the public is free to enter. He also said he believes the cameras make people feel safer.

He has spoken with the ACLU about the program, but, he said, “they’re not here; they’re not on the street.”

According to Williams, there is no way the police department will be able to meaningfully monitor the surveillance feeds coming from hundreds of businesses throughout the city, each with four cameras.

“If you make this citywide, if you make everyone a priority, nobody is,” Williams said. “Taking this citywide is a joke. ... In some instances, crime at a Project Green Light location has gone up.”

On Jan. 30, Detroit Police Chief James Craig held a press conference to announce a partnership the police department had entered into with 11 businesses in the Greektown area of downtown Detroit according to the Detroit News. The businesses agreed to pay $250 a month for the police to be able to view the feeds form three internet-connected cameras.

“Now we are seeing crime reductions across the city. We think about car jackings across the city and we believe that Project Green Light plays a significant role, and for over two years we’ve seen reductions in car jackings in and around Green Light locations accross the city. As compared to last year, an 11 percent reduction. And when you talk about over two years, a 24 percent reduction. So does Green Light work, I say it does,” Craig said in a press conference.