Oversight law didn’t stop surveillance boom. Advocates call for reforms

Community groups and City Council members are working to reform a Detroit law that has largely failed to create oversight of surveillance technology collecting data on residents’ faces, license plates, fingerprints and more.

Police surveillance tools have multiplied in the two years since the council adopted a Community Input Over Government Surveillance ordinance. The 2021 law, created in partnership with civil rights groups, requires public disclosures before the council can approve technology contracts. Advocates say loopholes in the law and a lack of data reporting have undermined efforts to inform residents about how their information is being collected.

“The ordinance is about bringing people into the collective responsibility of public safety,” said Rae Baker, a Detroit resident, University of Cincinnati professor and Urban Praxis Workshop member. “Increasing transparency around public safety is not a way of challenging the police, it’s a way of respecting the people who the police intended to serve.”

Council President Mary Sheffield has held several meetings with the coalition of civil rights groups that helped draft the original ordinance. She expects to introduce amendments in early 2024. Sheffield was hesitant to discuss specifics during a November interview, but said it’s time to reevaluate how well the ordinance has performed.

Tawana Petty is a fellow with the Social Science Research Council and Detroit activist who was working with the council and ACLU to draft an oversight ordinance. Petty pulled her support for what ultimately passed in 2021, saying input from the Detroit Police Department resulted in “too many carve outs” for police to avoid disclosures. 

“I’m zero percent surprised the ordinance is not strong enough to hold law enforcement accountable for procurement and deployment of surveillance technology in the city,” Petty said. “I don’t see how it’s benefitted Detroiters in regard to the expansion of surveillance technology, or how it’s brought the public into a deeper conversation about (how they can exercise) resistance to these technologies.” 

Surveillance cameras posted outside a liquor store on Woodward Avenue. Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield plans to introduce amendments next year for the city’s Community Input Over Government Surveillance ordinance. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero is chair of the Public Health and Safety committee, which has the first look at surveillance technology contracts sought by police. She’s working with the ACLU to strengthen reporting requirements and measure whether benefits of surveillance technology outweigh its costs. 

Santiago-Romero said DPD repeatedly leaves the council with unanswered questions when considering contracts. She wants language added to require more detailed data reporting. 

“Even a cost analysis would be helpful,” Santiago-Romero said. “If you tell me something is going to lower crime, I need a benchmark. It’s the same with our garbage, we have expectations of when it gets picked up and if it’s not you’re not doing your job and we’ll find another company. What I’m seeing with DPD is we’re not as stringent, and we should be.” 

DPD did not respond to a request for comment on its commitment to following the oversight ordinance or providing more data on the costs and benefits of surveillance contracts.

The ACLU, Urban Praxis Workshop, Detroit Action, the Detroit Justice Center and We the People of Michigan are among the groups working on ordinance changes with council members. The group is also discussing the creation of a community committee to independently review surveillance data. 

Baker said data provided by city departments is presented alongside a request for more funding, which could create a conflict of interest. The data is used to support an argument for more surveillance, they said. Departments seeking the technology have an incentive to avoid a deep look at potential civil rights impacts, Baker said. 

Ramis Wadood, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, said required disclosures also should include more detailed information on how technology could cause civil rights issues. It’s misleading for DPD to declare license plate readers and gunshot detection sensors won’t intrude on residents’ rights, Wadood said, especially because Detroit police falsely arrested three people in recent years who were identified by facial recognition technology. 

“​​We also want to see more data reporting from the city agency to see if they’re using (the technology) as intended and to see if it’s as effective and valuable as the city agency made it out to be,” Wadood said. “We need to see more data reporting after the fact to keep the City Council and to keep that community in the conversation about how this technology is being used.”

Baker said the working group is also looking at creating consequences for when people are misidentified or wrongly detained due to surveillance technology. 

“A consequence could be the suspension of the use of that technology,” Baker said. “It could also look like a data audit of surveillance data captured and being stored. It could look like the removal of technology. Misidentification continues to happen.” 

The ACLU of Michigan called on DPD to end its use of facial recognition technology after a third person was misidentified this year. Of six cases nationally where people were falsely accused of a crime due to facial recognition technology, half involve DPD.

“Detroit holds 50% of the known misidentification cases in the country right now,” Petty said. “I’m willing to bet we’re going to learn there were other cases folks didn’t know about.”

‘Those protections haven’t worked’ 

Under the law, Detroit’s council can only approve spending for surveillance technology after determining the benefits outweigh its costs and it won’t be used to discriminate against any particular group. Advocates say the law has not resulted in public access to information that settles those concerns. 

The law requires annual reports from the City Council and Detroit departments using the surveillance tools.

The reports outline the cost of implementation, number of resident complaints and third-party groups that have access to surveillance data, among other things. The council must release its annual report “on the city’s website” by April 30 of each year.

BridgeDetroit was unable to find any annual surveillance reports online, and was later told the council’s report would only be released through a Freedom of Information Act request. The most recent DPD annual report is from 2019, according to the Board of Police Commissioners.

“Specification reports” are also required under the ordinance before a contract is approved. The reports must include disclosure of the potential impact on civil rights, details on authorized use and deployment, data collection and sharing policies, auditing and oversight, among other things. 

But, none of that information is required for technology which predates the 2021 ordinance. Advocates said that exemption is one major flaw with the law. The city had already deployed several of its main surveillance tools by then, including Project Green Light cameras, ShotSpotter gunshot detection sensors and automatic license plate readers. 

“As we’ve seen over the last few years, those protections haven’t worked in the way that we hoped. (The ordinance) came well into this new era of surveillance technology, and those technologies were more or less grandfathered in,” Wadood said “If we create a stronger and more reliable ordinance, we’re only going to get more meaningful public engagement. I can’t imagine anything more important for the City Council than that.”

Baker said the ordinance should better define when technology is different enough to require a disclosure report. 

“What is not clear in the way the ordinance is written is whether a specification report is required when a new vendor is selling that particular product, if it’s an expansion of a product or a renewal of an existing product,” Baker said. “One of the reasons why requiring reports for expansions and renewals is important is because (those contracts) cost millions of dollars.”

The loophole stood up to a court challenge earlier this year. A group of residents argued the council illegally approved contracts for ShotSpotter devices that listen for gunfire because DPD submitted a flawed specification report. The city’s lawyers successfully argued the gunfire sensors are exempt from any reporting requirement because they were already being used. 

“The reports are critical so people can fully understand what it is,” said Sammie Lewis, a Detroit activist who was involved in the lawsuit. “Without those reports, it’s just a lot of misinformation being told to people, and they are showing support without having all the information.”

Wadood said closing the loophole and beefing up disclosures is a first step. He’s also seeking to add enforcement measures to the law. 

“What we have now is an ordinance that doesn’t provide any avenue for legal relief,” Wadood said. “It is quiet on what happens if the city violates the ordinance. We want to give courts the authority to deal with violations.” 

Detroit City Council members photographed on Nov. 7, 2023. (City of Detroit photo)

Council President Pro Tem James Tate asked DPD to provide data on ShotSpotter. An Oct. 20 memo requested the number of arrests, guns recovered, access to statistical analyses of crime patterns and how the department is tracking whether the sensors are deterring shootings. A month later, the data hadn’t been provided to Tate’s office. 

The Board of Police Commissioners is also responsible for oversight of surveillance tools and auditing data, according to the ordinance. Police Commissioner Ricardo Moore said the board has also struggled to obtain data. BOPC and the City Council should work closer to create more oversight, he said. 

“We really need a work group to discuss this and other concerns within the Detroit Police Department,” he said. 

The law allows city departments to temporarily use surveillance technology without following the oversight ordinance during “exigent circumstances,” which are not specifically defined. 

A specification report wasn’t created when the council was asked to approve a $64,650 contract for police fingerprint scanners. Santiago-Romero said she should have held up the contract until a report was created, even though mobile fingerprint readers were being used in Detroit since 2018 and thus qualified for the loophole. She was the lone “no” vote when the contract passed last month.

Specification reports that have been released haven’t contributed much to the public’s understanding of expensive surveillance tools even if they are released, Lewis said. 

DPD voluntarily created a disclosure report when seeking an expansion of license plate readers in September. The report explained that license plate readers can’t be used for traffic enforcement, but virtually every resident who supported the $5 million contract falsely believed the cameras are needed to reduce speeding. 

Residents similarly advocated for contracts for gunshot detection sensors on false terms. Some supporters said the technology would reduce shootings, though DPD reported the sensors are meant to detect gunfire and support investigations. The council ultimately approved a $7 million contract and renewed a $1.5 million contract to deploy more gunshot sensors last year. 

Specification reports are posted in multiple places on the city’s website. The Office of Contracting and Procurement and DPD have separate pages where the documents are posted.

A specification report on license plate readers used by the Municipal Parking Department for parking meter enforcement stated that the cameras don’t count as surveillance equipment.

Some city departments voluntarily released specification reports when they weren’t required due to the disclosure loophole. 

The Detroit Fire Department submitted a report when seeking autonomous drones to monitor burning structures. The unmanned aerial vehicles are powered by artificial intelligence and can reconstruct scenes using video collected from the site. A $301,852 contract for the drones was approved in May. 

The General Services Department also submitted a report on surveillance equipment for the Joe Louis Greenway. The report shows a $150,000 contract would pay for license plate readers and  several types of cameras. 

Wadood said the coalition is focused on creating an ordinance that creates better public involvement in decisions that will affect their city’s ability to track their activities. 

“(City departments) can’t just go out, find a vendor, buy the technology and put it out in the street – they have to go through City Council and hear from the public,” Wadood said. “I understand that puts a burden on city agencies. But it’s a necessary burden, because that slows the process down and gives the public enough time to step in and be at the table.”

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