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Detroit police look to expand real-time crime centers

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

As Detroit expands its network of surveillance cameras, Detroit police are looking to expand their capability to monitor and process the footage.

The police department is asking the Detroit City Council to approve a $4 million contract to expand its existing real-time crime center at police headquarters. It would also add two mini-centers at the eighth and ninth precincts.

Right now, the real-time crime center processes streaming video from more than 500 Project Green Light cameras located throughout the city. Now, the city plans to add another 400 cameras mounted on traffic lights by 2020, and Police Chief James Craig says they need more space and processing power to handle all that footage.

“We realize that our current real-time crime center; we’ve outgrown it,” Craig told a city council committee on Monday. “We have our real-time crime center in downtown, in headquarters, and we’re literally addressing the entire city. And this will be more intimate, more neighborhood-based, and that’s why this is so important.”

Craig says using the current Green Light system to track a suspect’s potential movements after a crime has become standard procedure for the department. He says that has helped police solve multiple crimes, including a mass shooting of five LGBTQ people on the city’s east side in May that resulted in three deaths. In that case, police were able to trace a suspect’s movements and identify him with the help of facial recognition technology.

“We know that when we have the use of video technology, we can go back to the time of the shooting and get an image of a vehicle, of a suspect. When that happens, we have a greater, higher probability of solving the crime,” Craig says. “Had it not been for both Green Light and the use of facial recognition, we would not have identified the suspect.”

But Craig took pains to point out that the facial recognition technology—currently the subject of an ongoing debate and awaiting formal approval from the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners—is a standalone technology. While the real-time centers are equipped with it, it won’t be applied to streaming footage, but only to footage where police have already identified a crime being committed, Craig told council members. He added that a facial recognition ID can only be used as an investigative tool, and never as the sole basis for an arrest.

As for the traffic light cameras, Craig says the plan is to mount them along high-crime thoroughfares, a half-mile apart. He says DPD policy prohibits the kind of possible overreach that has concerned some civil liberties advocates.

“Use of audio [is] prohibited. Immigration [enforcement] usage, prohibited. Always considering First Amendment considerations,” says Craig.

Craig says that per department policy, streaming footage can be collected and stored for 30 days, unless it captures a crime, in which case it can be held for the duration of an investigation and court proceedings. He said officers who violate any departmental policies regarding the surveillance technologies would face discipline.

Craig says he’s “absolutely certain” that more cameras will reduce violent crime in Detroit, citing a drop in crime near Project Green Light locations. However, experts point out that determining cause and effect would require a comparable study of non-Green Light locations, something a Michigan State University team is currently at work on. Overall, the data on whether surveillance cameras actually prevent crime are mixed.

The council is expected to vote on the $4 million expansion next week. Several members, including Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, have expressed reservations. Sheffield has authored a proposed technology surveillance ordinance for the city. Her office says a draft of the ordinance should be completed by the end of the month.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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