Civil liberty advocates caution use of Project Greenlight during pandemic response

Advocates warn about bias during COVID-19
Posted at 6:20 PM, Apr 23, 2020

(WXYZ) — Like many Detroiters, Tawana Petty is in mourning. Over the last month the 43-year-old has lost five loved ones to COVID-19. She currently has relatives in the ICU.

"I can’t even log onto Facebook right now because every time I log in, the first thing I see is that I’ve lost a friend, or I’ve lost a comrade, or an acquaintance," she said. "Every single person that I talk to knows someone personally who has died."

While the high death toll is painful and worrisome for Petty, who suffers from chronic respiratory symptoms, her anxiety is not just focused on the virus. She has a new, and less discussed, concern: mass-surveillance.

"It’s the pervasive narrative that has existed in Detroit for my entire life," Petty, who serves as the director of the Data Justice Program for the Detroit Community Technology Project said. "There’s always been an excuse as to why we have to be over-militarized, over-surveilled, over-policed.”

Earlier this month, as the city grappled with its overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, Mayor Mike Duggan announcedthat those flouting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's shelter-in-place orders would risk getting $1,000 fines or six months in jail. To aid in the enforcement and monitor social distancing, the Detroit Police Department would use Project Green Light — a network of cameras that stream to DPD's Real Time Crime Center — to surveil for congregating crowds.

The decision, which has received little push back from the public, is a cause of concern for Petty and other civil liberty advocates, who questioned the efficacy of mass surveillance before the outbreak, and fear it could reinforce bias during the pandemic, as well as normalize more invasive actions after.

"I’m for social distancing. I’m for people staying at home," said Petty, emphasizing that she understands the tremendous and difficult position city officials, and specifically police officers, find themselves in right now.

"What I’m not advocating for," she continued, "is the heavy hand of surveillance and tracking and profiling that I know is going to go beyond this moment."

The city, she explained, is hurting from loved ones lost. But it's this position of grieving and panic that has her most concerned: Will this crisis make residents more susceptible to signing off on blanket surveillance?

"When fear is involved," she said, "resistance to violations of our liberties often take a back seat."

Today a matrix of cameras coat the city of Detroit. There are nearly 700 businesses that are a part of Project Green Light, a program where local businesses agree to install surveillance cameras on their properties that feed directly into DPD's Real Time Crime Center. On top of this there are hundreds of cameras at various intersections as part of the Neighborhood Real-Time Intelligence Program.

The city and law enforcement see the cameras as a tool that promises safety with crime. And now with COVID-19, as the police force sees it ranks depleted by an outbreak that has sidelined hundreds of officers, virtual patrolling is viewed an appealing option. Detroit shared its lowest number of overnight deaths Wednesday, a fact that can be attributed, among other things, to more diligent social distancing in the past few weeks

Civil liberty advocates, however, are reluctant when it comes to the cameras. The city has yet to complete a comparative studyshowing Project Green Light is responsible for the dropping crime rate; something that has been occurring nationally. They are equally cautious to attribute increased social distancing to the cameras. More so, they say, the act of surveilling only magnifies and reinforces the structural inequities that have already made African Americans more susceptible to the virus.

"You target communities for surveillance, and then you find things in those communities, through that surveillance," said Jonathan Smith, who monitored the Detroit Police Department during the final stretch of its 13 years under the oversight of U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

"It has this effect of focusing in on certain communities," he continued, likening the cameras to a magnifying glass. "Even if those communities are behaving no different than other communities that might have a different racial demographic or a different economic background."

Smith, who currently serves as the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs said it's concerning that the city has decided to use Project Green Light to aid in its public health response.

"We’ve just made the answer to most of our questions around dealing with our "social problem" into "law enforcement problems" rather than looking at them through the lens of what are problem-solving solutions that we ought to be thinking about," he said, asking why public health officials, community organizers and trusted community leaders were not the conduit for social-distancing messaging and enforcement. And more pointedly, why more questions weren't being asked around what was actually causing Detroiters to be outside during the pandemic to begin with.

"Is that an education issue?" he asked. "Is it people have needs that are not being met and that’s why they’re there?"

In Detroit, where the poverty rate hovers just above 30%, public transportation is famously unreliable, and party stores have become stand-ins for traditional markets, Petty contends there are ample reasons why Detroiters might be out of their homes.

"Where else are you going to go if you go to a home that doesn’t have resources? That doesn’t have water, may not have electricity, no access to real food, no income coming in? Your only reprieve is going to be outside," she said, emphasizing that she doesn't justify or condone the circumstances, just acknowledges it's a reality.

A reality — and nuance — that cameras just do not understand, according to Eric Williams, an attorney with the Detroit Justice Center. While cameras can "catch" an action (a crime, or a gathering of people during the pandemic) they don't comprehend or address the circumstances behind it. More specifically, he said, they are ripe for bias.

"You are preemptively determining which people you are going to be policing," said Williams, who points out there is no data showing the network of cameras are responsible for the city's drop in crime.

"Given the biases in our system from top to bottom," he continued. "That’s problematic."

At a press conference on April 13, Assistant Chief James White answered WXYZ's questions as to how the department would be deciding which cameras to watch to find people congregating. According to White the department would continue to use risk terrain modeling, a predictive policing tool out of Rutgers University, which tracks crime trends and then analyzes hot spots to determine what about the landscape attracts the behaviors.

"Virtual patrol is essentially looking at a computer with a trained analyst and looking for that behavior," said White. "With regards to the decision being made, again it goes back to data, what has the data shown us?"

DPD public information officer Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood clarified over text: "If we have complaints or calls we will use the camera available in that area. Otherwise, we use virtual patrol which is randomly scrolling through the Greenlight Cameras. Sometimes it's based on areas where there are complaints and sometimes not."

The department maintains it has been using discretion during these congregation checks. At the conference on April 13, for example, AC White explained that in the two days prior the department had been involved in over 600 spot checks but only issued 35 tickets.

Smith, however, noted that the data point leaves opportunities for blind spots. When police departments tally tickets and arrests, for example, the most severe offense is what is recorded. This means while 35 tickets were given in response to congregating, there in fact could be a larger number of people who ultimately received tickets during these interactions for more weighty offenses. "All that’s going to be hidden behind the data," he said.

When asked about follow up investigations during spot-checks, AC White stressed that the goal is to keep the interactions down to a minimum, but that additional investigations have occurred in a few circumstances.

"That’s a hard question to answer," he said. "It depends on a number of different things. Generally speaking the officers would like for, you know, all the crowds to disperse upon being advised to do so. Has there been instances where there’s been additional investigations based on the conduct that the officers have encountered. That would be a factual statement."

For Williams these unknowns are problematic. He sees acceptance of surveillance cameras during the pandemic as a slippery slope.

"Everyone recognizes that we are in a unique situation," he said. "that public health requires giving the government the ability to act in ways that normally we wouldn’t permit, except in wartime, but once you make that determination — that this software can be used for something other than what it was originally designed for — it becomes easier to do it every time."

For Petty the issue at hand is one of transparency, but also equity.

The most stark and timely example of this is seen, she said, in the response to protesters in Lansing. Last week hundreds of Michiganders flooded the state capitol for "Operation Gridlock" a protest of the stay-at-home order organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition.

Eschewing Gov. Whitmer’s shelter-in-place instructions, the protesters flooded the streets of Lansing; some honked and bellowed from their cars, others got out and clustered with homemade posters and AK47s. It was a congregation of people. Yet the response from law enforcement was one of restraint.

According to Michigan State Police 1st Lt. Michael Shaw only one person was arrested — they had assaulted another protester — and no tickets were issued.

This discretion, and the variance in how congregations are being viewed, is at the crux of Petty’s concerns with bias in policing. Specifically policing aided by surveillance.

While she and Smith both agree the reasons for Detroiters congregating are likely because of necessity, Petty poses another question: What if congregating Detroiters are also making a statement about civil liberties?

What if, she questions, their gathering is a response to a lack of resources, unemployment and inequities. What if, she asks, people in Detroit are protesting the same systems those who went to Lansing were challenging.

Petty is quick to explain she isn’t trying to justify the actions. She has lost loved ones to COVID-19, she understands what is at stake, and the importance of social distancing. What she is questioning is the response.

"Nobody was handing out $1,000 tickets in Lansing. Nobody was profiling and targeting," she said. "If you’re already struggling without health insurance, if you’re already having to shop for groceries at a liquor store, if you’re already living in a home where there is no water, you’re going to seek refuge outside of your home. And that should not lead you to being traced, tracked, monitored and criminalized"

For Petty the conversation — may it be about crime or COVID-19 — continues to return to systems, and what's being valued.

Growing up on the city’s west side in the 1980s, she saw first-hand the consequences of years of disinvestment. Closed schools, sky-high unemployment, unreliable public transportation, food deserts and environmental pollution. Conditions, which today, are believed to be contributing factors as to why poorer, blacker communities — cities like Detroit — suffer from pre-existing health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.

And surveillance, according to Petty, just magnifies the problems. It's one more disparity.

"You can look at safer communities and see that they’re resourced. They have viable infrastructure. They have good schools, they have grocery stores. We see the things that make communities feel safe," she said. "Detroit is lacking in those things."