Detroit City Council on Tuesday approved a $5 million expansion of the use of license plate readers across the city, using federal pandemic relief funds.
It’s the latest City Council vote on surveillance technology that has ignited debate in the community. Other surveillance tools Detroit police utilize include ShotSpotter — City Council last year OK’d spending $8.5 million on the gunshot detection technology amid fierce support and opposition — Project Green Light video surveillance and facial recognition technology.
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Two City Council members voted against the license plate reader spending: Gabriela Santiago-Romero and Latisha Johnson.
Detroit police have used license plate readers since 2018. But with the city’s new contract with Motorola Solutions, an additional 100 cameras will be set up at 25 intersections, according to Detroit police. There are currently 83 cameras set up at intersections, in addition to over 100 mobile cameras.
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The vast majority of community members who tuned in to Tuesday’s council vote urged their city leaders to approve the $5 million dollar contract in hopes that it could address speeding on Detroit’s roads — but using license plate readers for traffic and civil infractions goes against Detroit police policy.
According to Detroit Police Department policy, license plate readers are used in investigations involving auto theft — which Detroit has seen more of in the past year — and violent crimes such as homicides and sexual assaults.
The cameras are focused on the rear of vehicles and photos are taken of license plates, Deputy Chief Franklin Hayes said during an hourlong debate prior to Tuesday’s vote. The cameras do not capture the faces of drivers and are not used to identify them, he said. Officials in other cities, like Louisville, Kentucky, have reported otherwise, stating license plate readers can be used to capture faces.
Data retrieved from Detroit’s license plate readers is saved for 90 days, Hayes said.
Police Chief James White described license plate readers as “one of the most useful and powerful tools that we have” during Tuesday’s debate.
He noted the technology was used to locate Rashad Trice, the man charged in the killing of 2-year-old Wynter Cole-Smith — the child was kidnapped in Lansing and later found dead in Detroit, and Trice, the prime suspect, was located in St. Clair Shores.
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“Certainly we don’t want anyone to abuse this tool,” White added.
Many community members have opposed using more license plate readers. They spoke of civil liberty and privacy concerns amid growing reliance on surveillance technology, questioned the technology’s effectiveness and questioned who owns the data, and how it’s protected.
One major concern involves potential harm the technology could cause in Detroit’s immigrant communities. White said it’s against department policy to share data with government agencies such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S Customs and Border Protection.
Sean Rositano, who works with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and is a member of the Detroit Immigration Task Force, said representatives of the task force met with Detroit police and aren’t convinced the department’s policies provide enough protection for immigrant communities.
“Cities nationwide have fought to limit license plate readers because researchers have shown ICE and Custom and Border Protection regularly purchase access to Motorola’s license plate databases,” Rositano said on Monday during the City Council’s public health and safety committee meeting.
“We do not want Detroit immigrant families separated, detained or deported because their license plate was stored in a database that immigration enforcement agencies can access. (Detroit police) would need to make amendments to its policies and contract with Motorola to ensure that safety of immigrants comes first.”
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Rositano suggested Detroit police limit agencies it shares data with, strengthen its oversight and provide transparent reporting to ensure ICE and CBP do not have access to Detroit’s data.
A spokesperson for the Detroit Police Department said the department owns the data collected by its license plate readers.
Santiago-Romero shared Rositano’s concern over potential harm against immigrants in Detroit.
And she, among others, also questioned the technology’s effectiveness compared with its cost.
Santiago-Romero noted that, according to Detroit police data, the technology conducted nearly 25 million license plate readings in the last 90 days, leading to only 64 arrests.
But White pushed back: Among the 64 people arrested, 16 are suspected of murder, he said.
“Sixteen murderers. That’s the cost,” White said.
Detroit city hall reporter Dana Afana contributed to this report.