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Detroit, city officials sued over ShotSpotter expansion

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 12/1/2022 Andrea May Sahouri, Detroit Free Press

A pair of social justice groups is suing Detroit, its Police Department and a handful of city officials over the expansion of ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology into more neighborhoods.

The Detroit Justice Center and the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice argue in the lawsuit filed Wednesday that Detroit City Council did not have the authority to approve a $7 million expansion of the controversial surveillance technology and a $1.5 million extension of the city's existing contract with the California-based company without adequate public input. City officials and the Police Department, the lawsuit claims, violated Detroit's Community Input over Government Surveillance Ordinance during the approval process.

The lawsuit asks the 3rd Circuit Court to urgently decide that the contracts are void, that the Detroit Police Department failed to comply with the ordinance and that the city exceeded its authority in approving the ShotSpotter contracts.

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Attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of Detroit residents who live in neighborhoods where ShotSpotter is deployed — John Eagan, Sammie Lewis, Michael Shane, Phillip Shane and Sarah Torres — and the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.

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.

"This lawsuit was filed by community members who are concerned with real safety in our communities and government accountability," Eric Williams, an attorney with the Detroit Justice Center, told the Free Press.

"The Civilian Input Over Government Surveillance Ordinance was passed to ensure that the public could participate in an informed decision about the use of public funds on surveillance technology. Yes, it’s about the money and the failure of the city to follow the law. But it’s also about where tax dollars can go to create real public safety, the kind that produces safe housing, quality education and support for those dealing with mental, emotional or substance abuse issues."

Detroit's surveillance ordinance was adopted in May 2021 after concerns the city approved the Project Green Light video surveillance system, and facial recognition surveillance technology without enough public input. The ordinance requires stricter oversight when adopting surveillance technology that has the potential to harm.

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According to the ordinance, a Surveillance Technology Specification Report is required to be submitted and available to the public at least 14 days prior to any public hearings or meetings regarding the technology. The report must provide a description of the technology, its purpose, how it will used, its fiscal impact, its impact on civil rights and liberties, information on data collection and more.

And if that report is not submitted and made public in compliance with the ordinance, "no city department may engage in a surveillance technology procurement," the ordinance states.

The city's top attorney, Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett, said Wednesday: "We believe this lawsuit to be without merit."  

The Detroit Police Department did submit a Surveillance Technology Specification Report, but the lawsuit alleges it did so in September, months after the city and the public began debating ShotSpotter.

ShotSpotter was first approved in March 2021 and was installed in Detroit's 8th and 9th precincts, prior to the city's adoption of its surveillance ordinance.

But in May of this year, after the ordinance had been adopted, City Council became aware of procurement requests to renew ShotSpotter's contract and to approve a second one that would expand the technology into more neighborhoods, according to the lawsuit.

Council held public meetings to discuss the contracts on June 6 and July 25, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit alleges that White and his Police Department were required to submit a Surveillance Technology Specification Report 14 days before the June 6 meeting to allow for public comment.

The lawsuit states that Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield wrote a letter to the Detroit Police Department on Sept. 12, reminding the department of the ordinance and its requirement to submit a surveillance report.

A surveillance report was eventually submitted by Detroit police on or about Sept. 19 but was allegedly made public a day after City Council voted to extend ShotSpotter's existing contract in the 8th and 9th precincts on Sept. 27, the lawsuit alleges.

The report, the lawsuit also alleges, is "deficient" and does not include concerns regarding the technology's efficiency and potential impacts to civil rights and liberties.

"The published ShotSpotter STSR failed to respond to direct inquiries concerning the potential adverse impacts on civil liberties and civil rights; potential uses that will be expressly prohibited; the potential data that may be inadvertently collected and how it would be addressed; and the specific ways in which data retention will be carried out," the lawsuit states.

After months of heated debate with hundreds of public commenters tapping into City Council meetings and a series of vote postponements, the $7 million ShotSpotter expansion was approved by City Council Oct. 11, using money from the city's general fund instead of its initial request to use federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The lawsuit further states that the current surveillance report does not reflect changes made in funding, length of contract and area of deployment.

Andrea Sahouri covers criminal justice for the Detroit Free Press. She can be contacted at 313-264-0442, or on Twitter @andreamsahouri.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit, city officials sued over ShotSpotter expansion


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