Eyes on Detroit

In a tension-filled sociopolitical climate, the city's police department is deploying a tall order of synchronized on-person and in-car cameras.


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 The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 reignited a lingering debate about racial profiling, officer accountability, and transparency among police departments. 

National dialogue has long been shaped by implicit racial bias and how it may impact officer conduct. For instance, New York City Police Department stop-and-frisk records from 2003-13 show officers were 18 percent more likely to use force when stopping an individual who is black. 

More recently, the deaths of Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile have added more fuel to the sociopolitical fire across the country, in cities such as Baltimore and Dallas.

Detroit has taken a big step in choosing to do things differently.

This past May, the Detroit City Council approved $5.2 million for the Detroit Police Department to purchase 1,500 cameras and launch what will be one of the nation’s largest sets of state-of-the-art synchronized on-person and in-car cameras. DPD will be the largest of more than 30 other police departments in the state already using body cameras. 

Talk about body cameras began in 2015. In an August news release, Mayor Mike Duggan’s office said: “Our goal is to build a police department where all interactions between officers and citizens are recorded. Full transparency is the best way to build trust.” 

Capt. John Serda, head of DPD’s Civil Rights Section, is charged with overseeing the synchronized body cameras project. “We as a department value our relationship with the community,” he says, adding that Detroit’s project arose via suggestions from officers who wanted to have that transparency.

“The secondary benefit is that it can exonerate an officer when accusations are made that aren’t true,” Serda says.

Of course, the opposite is also true. In 2015, an Inkster officer was fired and eventually imprisoned after a police car dash cam captured him assaulting an unarmed, 57-year-old man. It also cost Inkster a $1.4 million settlement.

A Methodical Rollout

Monitoring the cameras’ impact, functionality, and use has been a crucial aspect of Detroit’s rollout. Last summer, a 60-day “risk mitigation” period began with a trial process in the 4th and 7th precincts. Twenty-five cameras from vendor WatchGuard were placed in each precinct, and the company also outfitted cars with cameras synced with those on-body.

DPD finished the test period in December, and began rolling out the synchronized cameras this January. Barring any delays, Serda says a new precinct will receive cameras each month. All 12 precincts should be outfitted by the end of 2017. 

“We want to do this very methodically and very carefully and thoughtfully,” Serda says. 

Part of being methodical in the cameras’ launch is understanding how and when the cameras will be used. Officers will be required to have their cameras on whenever they make contact with citizens, with specific exceptions. Cameras will not be turned on if officers are interacting with children or during cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. Additionally, if officers enter a home, they will have to ask for consent to record the scene (unless they have a warrant to make an arrest or if the situation is deemed critical).

Teaching officers how to operate the cameras properly has also been a part of the rollout.

An officer’s synchronized body camera will automatically begin recording alongside their dash cam when their car’s overhead lights and sirens are turned on, when the back doors open, when the vehicle begins accelerating quickly, or upon impact. When officers are using the body cameras independently, they can also turn the body cameras on and off by pressing a button on the equipment. 

Not a Foolproof Solution

Even if operated properly, a camera could still fail, especially if it becomes detached. Serda says WatchGuard’s cameras have three different clip mechanisms to ensure they stay attached. He hasn’t seen a camera fall off of an officer during any trials.

Serda adds that if an officer fails to produce footage from a critical arrest, the case would be subject to review. “It would have to be documented that the camera fell off or was knocked off or was damaged, and therefore that’s why there was no video,” he says. 

While the DPD’s body camera project has been a welcome initiative, some groups doubt its viability as a long-term solution. When the plan to implement DPD’s integrated body and dash-cam system first emerged, the nonprofit Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality expressed reservations.

“While we think that it is important to have body cams and other technologies, we also realize that no technology is foolproof,” wrote DCAPB representatives in 2015. “All technologies are subject to the manner in which individuals handle them.”

Kenneth Reed, the organization’s spokesman, confirms that DCAPB has no problem with the use of body cameras. But he insists that they’ll need to be used properly. 

“It may not prevent someone from losing their life, however,” he says, citing the case of Alton Sterling, who was killed by Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police. The officers were wearing body cameras, but police claimed the cameras came loose during a struggle with Sterling.

Reed notes that body cameras are unlikely to prevent all instances of police overreach or implicit racial bias. Yet, he regards them as an important step in increasing institutional transparency.

“If the body cameras are working properly like they should be, it’s another tool of getting an account in terms of what actually happened,” says Reed.

Ultimately, DCAPB wants to see “effective community policing, as well as better training in terms
of de-escalation,” Reed says. “Yes, the city has done a better job [than others], but all it really takes is one rogue officer and a bad incident and the city could explode.”

Hidden Costs

Other issues surrounding the cameras include the need for additional storage space, personnel, and updated equipment.

At the end of each shift, the cameras will be plugged into a dock and their contents will be uploaded into a database that runs on an in-house DPD server. 

For now, Serda says DPD will keep footage for 90 days as a general rule, but they will be adhering to all state and federal rules of retention. “If you’re recording a homicide, that’s probably going to get stored forever,” he says.

In order to fulfill the need for additional staff and equipment, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office set aside $350,000 of its $34 million budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy says that’s just a small portion of the financial resources her team will need to work with the new cameras. There will now be seven departments utilizing body cameras within the jurisdiction of the Prosecutor’s Office: Detroit, River Rouge, Harper Woods, Grosse Pointe Farms, Dearborn, Belleville, and Canton.

Worthy says her office receives over 8,000 significant cases a year involving police-citizen encounters and there will now be body camera footage for those cases. Thus, she says it is imperative that DPD get the videos to the Prosecutor’s Office in a timely manner.

“When there is body camera footage, and remember, squad car footage as well, we have to look at every single piece of tape,” Worthy says. 

Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor and Director of Communications Maria Miller says five hours of tape could potentially take over 15 hours to review. If the video is part of a Freedom of Information Act request, it will also have to be reviewed and marked for “redaction” (generally items that protect the privacy of bystanders, witnesses, minors, and victims).

Despite the additional duties, Worthy says her office will do everything it can in order to bring citizens justice.

“I am a proponent of anything that is going to help us get to the truth, but sometimes it hasn’t been thought through about what prosecutors are going to have to do and the resources they’re going to need to review this material,” Worthy says. “In order to make good, just decisions on charging and going to trial, prosecutors across the country — not just here — are going to need to have the resources that they need to be able to view and use this material properly.”

As DPD and the Prosecutor’s Office adjust to the introduction of the cameras, they’ll be monitoring their own departments closely. And citizens will be paying close attention, too.

“I’m sure the public wants us to have this material,” Worthy says. 

“They want us to get to the truth.”

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