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Detroit City Council should adopt this surveillance technology ordinance | Editorial

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 5/14/2021 Detroit Free Press Editorial Board
a sign hanging off the side of a building: A green strobe flashes on top of a sign as the sun starts to set behind Southern Smokehouse on West McNichols Road in Detroit, Michigan on Thursday, April 19, 2018.This carry out BBQ restaurant participates in the Detroit Police Green Light program. © Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press A green strobe flashes on top of a sign as the sun starts to set behind Southern Smokehouse on West McNichols Road in Detroit, Michigan on Thursday, April 19, 2018.This carry out BBQ restaurant participates in the Detroit Police Green Light program.

The Detroit City Council will soon vote on an ordinance that would offer a template for the adoption of surveillance technology by any city department. 

We urge the council to adopt the Community Input Over Government Surveillance ordinance. 

It offers structure for what is likely to be the inevitable, continued use of technology that has broad implications for civil rights and disparate outcomes in policing.

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Detroit already employs surveillance technology, most notably through its Project Greenlight, a five-year-old program that offers priority 911 service to businesses that agree to install cameras accessible by the Detroit Police Department's real-time crime center, and its use of facial recognition technology, purchased in 2017. The city also has traffic cameras, and recently began using ShotSpotter technology to detect and locate gunshots.

Project Greenlight and facial recognition technology were both were implemented without the robust standards and provisions for public input that the proposed ordinance would require. The need for stricter oversight is manifest: the DPD has wrongly arrested at least two citizens after they were misidentified by the department's problematic facial recognition software. 

More: DPD to start using gunshot detection technology ShotSpotter if City Council approves

More: Facial recognition contract extension reopens rifts among Detroit police commissioners

There's a long history of using surveillance technology in this country to police Black and brown Americans, dating back to "lantern laws" that required people of color in pre-Revolutionary War New York City to illuminate their faces with a bright light after dark, explained Chad Marlow, senior advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU. More recently, critics have shown the that the facial recognition technology utilized by many law enforcement agencies does a poor job of matching Black and brown faces.

Expensive surveillance technology is no substitute for the more meaningful investments Detroit and other cities need to make in communities. But the use of such technology seems destined to grow. The Project Greenlight camera network has expanded exponentially since its debut. In 2019, the Detroit City Council approved a $4 million expansion of the department's Real Time Crime Center, and last fall the the city renewed its contract with its incumbent provider of facial recognition software.

More: Experts: Duggan's denial of facial recognition software hinges on 3 words

More: Farmington Hills man sues Detroit police after facial recognition wrongly identifies him

The proposed ordinance City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield developed in collaboration with the ACLU would establish long overdue requirements for community input and accountability. It has won the support of outgoing Police Chief James Craig. 

The ordinance would require any city department that proposed purchasing surveillance technology to: 

  • Advise city council members  how the technology will be used and how and where it will be deployed;
  • Explain how data will be collected, protected, deleted and/or stored; with which agencies data may be shared; what training will be required of operators; and how citizen complaints will be logged
  • Hold a public hearing 
  • Submit an annual report detailing new acquisitions of surveillance technology, including the cost, and an accounting of citizen complaints, and 
  • Establish whistleblower protections

Sheffield's ordinance is a response to concerns raised by Detroiters after 2017, when the Detroit Police Department purchased more than $1 million in facial recognition technology software from South Carolina-based DataWorks without any public hearings or even a Board of Police Commissioners-approved policy governing its use. After months of outcry from community activists, those hearings happened, and a policy was adopted. The CIOGS ordinance would reverse that backwards process, requiring community input and public hearings first

Although it was developed specifically for Detroit, the ordinance offers a template that can be used anywhere, and 19 communities across the country, including Grand Rapids, have adopted similar ordinances. Communities whose police departments have yet to acquire sophisticated surveillance technology should act now to make sure those powerful tools are deployed responsibly.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit City Council should adopt this surveillance technology ordinance | Editorial

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