Detroit’s Surveillance State: Will City Council Buy In?

Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson is the President and Director of Research at The PuLSE Institute. This column is part of an ongoing series on race and democracy produced by The Douglass Project of the Institute named after consequential abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of the most preeminent black freedom fighters in the nation’s history. The Project produces evidence-based analysis, policy initiatives and proposals that are strategically aligned with the principal pillars of race, equity, and democracy. The goal of the project is for the successful implementation of solutions to inequality that will be useful to present and future generations. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-chief of the Institute and chair of the Academy of Fellows.

“For courage — not complacency — is our need today. Leadership — not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead and lead vigorously.” President John F. Kennedy

By Tina M. Patterson, Esq. 

When we think of leaders, we often direct our thoughts to individuals such as former President John F. Kennedy who have titles or occupy powerful positions. However, leadership and important titles are not synonymous. While there are many different definitions and components of leadership, ultimately a leader is one whom others follow. Therefore, leadership must demonstrate that the leader is guiding his or her followers toward greater reward aligned with serving their needs to the best of their interests.

Here in Detroit, though we have many elected officials tasked with moving the city toward a better future through the midst of the perception of the great recovery, a conspicuous dearth of leadership clouds nearly every public office and department. Nowhere was this more evident than during the arrest of Commissioner Willie Burton at the July 10 meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners.

While Commissioner Burton was ordered to be undemocratically removed by one of his own colleagues no more powerful than him, which resulted in his arrest, the biggest indictment from that meeting was the behavior of every other commissioner present who watched what transpired and said absolutely nothing as the inexcusable incident unfolded. Furthermore, no other municipally elected official spoke out publicly in condemning this appalling assault on democratic and constitutional rights, including the silence of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the entire Detroit City Council. The entire ordeal was an unconscionable moral blow to democracy that set a new low for the standard of public leadership in the city.

Critically, the main issue surrounding Commissioner Burton’s protest and subsequent arrest is the increasing use of sophisticated technology, such as facial recognition software, by the Detroit Police Department. While we witnessed how callously and cowardly the Board of Police Commissioners responded to the issue, a more prominent government body, the Detroit City Council, now has the opportunity to atone for their unacceptable silence and raise the standard for rigorous scrutiny of policies that present very credible threats veiled as public safety to the citizens of Detroit.

The council members, President Brenda Jones, President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, Andre Spivey, Roy McCalister Jr., Raquel Castañeda-López, James Tate, Janeé Ayers, Gabe Leland, and Scott Benson, will need to demonstrate that they have of a political spine as the highest legislative body in the city to withstand the pressures of the Duggan administration.

They will have that chance with their vote on July 23 on whether to approve the creation of a surveillance state with yet another controversial measure regarding funding for enhanced technology use by the Detroit Police Department. At a July 15 press conference, Detroit Police Chief James Craig promoted a $4million proposal for the use of real time technology by expanding the department’s public safety headquarters facility and building additional mini centers in its 8th and 9th precincts.

Despite significant community objections to the use of enhanced surveillance technology that prompt fears of a Detroit police state, Chief Craig vouched for the funding, insisting that this measure is all about the “business of reducing violence.”

What Chief Craig fails to realize is that policing is not a business. Reducing violence is not a line item on a balance sheet; rather, it is a responsible goal of any public safety organization whose objective is to not only protect, but also serve its respective community. This necessarily entails balancing whether crime reduction strategies and tactics are the best means to achieve that end, including ensuring the protection of every citizen’s constitutional rights.

Additionally, this proposal is not a guarantee to reduce violence, as Craig confidently predicted. As an example, Chief Craig referenced the success of Project Greenlight, however it has been well documented that the program has produced no tangible results and that a temporary drop in crime cannot be directly attributed to the project. Furthermore, despite Project Greenlight and every other police initiative the Duggan administration has promoted, Detroit remains atop the most dangerous cities in the United States, often swapping first place with only St. Louis. Therefore, this latest project is yet another proposal lacking credibility to protect the safety of the public in the city.

Most significantly, however, the recent technology proposed by Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan is a threat to innocent civilians with no evidence backing that these tools will result in a reduction of crime.

As an example, the highly controversial facial recognition software has been proven to not only be inaccurate and ineffective, but inherently biased against dark skinned individuals. The software maintains a nearly 35% margin of error for dark skinned faces, compared to less than 1% for lighter skinned individuals, skewing the possibility of suspect misidentification for black and brown communities. While fighting crime is a worthy goal, it must be balanced with the rights and protection of private individuals. According to this fallacy, the facial recognition software presents more of a threat rather than a protective measure for any black community like Detroit, where blacks comprise a supermajority of 80% of the city.

Furthermore, the Detroit Police Department has been dealing with its own internal racial turmoil, evidenced by the infamous Ariel Moore incident during record below zero temperatures this winter, along with the uncovering of a racist culture revealed in the 6th Precinct. If the police department can demonstrate racist behavior without advanced technology, arguably it does not need and cannot be trusted with inherently biased technology to assist in their mission to protect the public.

If there was ever a time for leaders in Detroit to step forward boldly and loudly to protect the interest and safety of their constituents, that time is now and the spotlight is on City Council to act accordingly. As the most powerful legislative body in the Detroit, the Council has the power to draft policies to adopt as ordinances, which will govern the city and its future well-being. Therefore, the Council owes a duty to the residents of Detroit to craft policies that will protect the citizenry and serve their best interests. 

Based on numerous studies and empirical evidence, the proposed technology by Chief Craig does not fall into that category. In a city like Detroit, where the population is 80% Black, this biased technology proposed by the Chief creates a menacing threat to the safety of any black individual within the city limits, defeating any argument in the interest of public safety.

The task is set. The onus now lays at the feet of City Council to raise the standard of public leadership in this city and forcefully protect the best interests and basic rights of the citizenry who elected them to do just that.

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