This is part of a continuing series on surveillance in Detroit.
On Thursday, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners (BOPC) approved a set of policies and guidelines to govern the use of facial recognition technology by the Detroit Police Department (DPD). BOPC did this despite significant public opposition. Despite clear evidence that other cities are rejecting the technology. Despite never formally hearing from opponents of the technology. The obvious takeaway is that the BOPC is an embarrassing collection of police sycophants utterly incapable of exercising civilian oversight over DPD. However, that conclusion has long been obvious to anyone attending a BOPC meeting to watch the Commission fawn over the police and sneer at complaining citizens. (There needs to be a house cleaning at BOPC too, but that’s another post.) The real story behind the public debate over facial recognition and police surveillance is that Detroit’s approach to policing is fatally flawed and Chief Craig, who embodies this approach, must go if Detroit is ever to be a safe and just city.
Let’s start with the invisible elephant in the room: surveillance in Detroit. I’m not talking about the hundreds of cameras owned and operated by private companies. I’m not talking about the thousands of Ring surveillance cameras on houses across the city. If I were talking about them, I’d mention that law enforcement can view them, (only, the government promises) with the camera owner’s permission. No, what I’m talking about are the traffic cameras on public property and Project Green Light (PGL) cameras on private property, all of which are viewed real time by (at least) DPD. To my dismay, Chief Craig doesn’t consider Project Green Light a surveillance program. I’m not sure what else to call it, in large part because PGL’s actual purpose is unclear. Purpose is important because if we don’t know what PGL is supposed to do, there is no way to evaluate whether it’s working and, if it’s working, whether it’s worth the investment.
Let me take a moment here to be specific about PGL. The program has multiple components. In addition to the cameras monitored live by DPD, PGL includes increased lighting, increased police visits, and 911 call prioritization. (Don’t even get me started on that!) Increased lighting and increased police presence have been shown to deter crime. Live cameras have not been shown to do that. According to Chief Craig, that doesn’t matter because he has said that PGL wasn’t intended to reduce crime. On the other hand, if you ask for evidence that PGL works, he will immediately ramble on about how he just knows it is reducing crime. For the record, DPD apparently got a grant to have Michigan State University team look into PGL’s effectiveness. We are still waiting to see the results.
But let’s take the Chief at his word and assume PGL wasn’t designed to prevent crime. And it’s not a surveillance program. So, what exactly is PGL supposed to do? In particular, what is the purpose of having live video monitored by DPD (and available to other law enforcement agencies)? I think these are fair questions if we are going to judge the success of a very large public investment in cameras, facilities, and personnel.
This is where I usually get DPD defenders arguing that PGL and facial recognition surveillance are distinct issues. “The technology isn’t in the cameras.” “DPD will only use still images.” Oh please. Quite frankly, since DPD operated for 2 years without any rules and still hasn’t told us how it was used, I’m a little suspicious. But ok, let’s go with it. Let’s assume that despite paying a million dollars for software that has all those capabilities, we can trust DPD’s pinky promise that it will not use facial recognition technology with handheld or mobile devices or on live video. But where do you think DPD will turn to get still images? PGL and traffic surveillance cameras are going to be first among the sources for those images. In short, facial recognition is just part of the larger issue of police surveillance. And this brings us back to Chief Craig.
I don’t really know Chief Craig. I’ve met him on a number of occasions, but I don’t know him as a person. I do know him as a public figure, a public figure who has avoided any hint of personal corruption or malfeasance. Arguably, he’s a good, clean-cut guy. But he’s also a public figure who prevaricates and dodges with disturbing ease. Since he was hired by Detroit’s emergency manager, I’ve watched him play the tough guy like he’s auditioning for the role of sheriff in a spaghetti western. I’ve seen him on the cover of the NRA’s magazine. His studio gangsta persona is off-putting and sad. Sadder still is his doubling down on the policies that have failed to make Detroit a safer city. More guns haven’t made Detroit a safer city. Calling a shooter a terrorist – with all the dehumanizing subtext that goes along with it – hasn’t made Detroit safer. Locking up the wrong person won’t make Detroit safer either, but Chief Craig has made it clear that is a risk he’s willing to take. After all, the first set of policies DPD proposed didn’t contain most of the protections that he now promises will prevent abuse and mistakes.
But even if facial recognition was 100% accurate, the truth is that constant surveillance isn’t going to make Detroit safer. Treating everyone like a potential suspect may lead to more arrests, but Detroit can’t incarcerate itself out of its crime problem. The rest of the country has already figured this out and is going in the opposite direction. Other cities prohibiting facial recognition tech, they are closing jails and investing in communities. Chief Craig is the embodiment of the overseer mentality, a mentality that over polices Black bodies and demands that Black folks prove they don’t belong in a cage. He is indifferent to the consequences our young people face when they find themselves entangled in the system. Yes, there are DPD programs that attempt to engage young people in gangs. But many of the people who work in or with those programs will tell you they are a joke. (For obvious reason, they didn’t want me to identify them in this story. But if you don’t believe me, look around and ask yourself if they seem to be working.)
There is one more factor to consider. Constant surveillance will destroy the essential pillars of democracy – the right to gather and protest. This isn’t just a theoretical concern. In the middle of protest in Baltimore, Police used facial recognition to identify protestors in crowd who had outstanding warrants. Then they went into the crowd and arrested them. Do you see the problem there? It’s amazing that a city known for its labor activists, large Muslim community, and political active Black electorate would allow the creation of a surveillance infrastructure that would put COINTELPRO to shame. If we let the government build a surveillance network, it will be used against us. History shows this time and time and time again. Ultimately, these issues fall at the feet of our elected officials. But Chief Craig is the face of it all. Let Chief Craig go play tough guy somewhere else. Detroit’s citizens and police officers need and deserve a thoughtful and honest leader. Chief Craig is not the one.