Detroit considering plan to use surveillance cameras outside businesses to help fight crime

Police in Detroit are considering a plan to tap into feeds from outdoor surveillance cameras at gas stations, stores and other businesses to help officers respond more quickly to crime.

The video feeds may be linkable to police headquarters, where they would be monitored.

The head of a group representing hundreds of Detroit grocers said the plan is a "no-brainer" and has been discussed in the city before, while the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan worries that it gives a "Big Brother" feel and could lead to violations of individual privacy.

For Detroit, which has seen homicides and other violent crime drop in recent years, using non-governmental security cameras would be another tool for police.

"I don't know if this is going to work or not, but we have our best team on it," Mayor Mike Duggan said when announcing the plan Tuesday night during his annual State of the City Address.

Police in Detroit routinely use footage from surveillance cameras to help solve crimes, but it can take some time to locate and review the images.

"At gas stations there are all kinds of exterior cameras," Duggan said. "You go to the McDonald's or any of the fast food places (and) there are exterior cameras. We've got them at many of the traffic lights. What would happen if somebody at police headquarters were linked up to all of those cameras to respond immediately? If somebody is in a carjacking at a gas station ... and the police could immediately get a picture of the carjacker and the car and get it out to the officers, how much of a difference would that make?"

New York, Chicago and Philadelphia are some cities with databases of private residential and business surveillance cameras. The city council in San Jose, California, in September approved the creation of a registry of private surveillance cameras to help fight crime. Joining such programs is voluntary.

"It's something we're reviewing," said Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who added that his previous department in Cincinnati had a similar system. "There are cameras positioned throughout the city. The challenge is being able to tap into those."

Preliminary higher-end costs could be about $4 million and there is no time frame to bring the system to Detroit, said Craig.

"First, we have to have the funds to cover it," he said. "I would like it — like yesterday. It's a proactive approach to reducing crime and can also act in a preventative manner. It's a very effective tool."

Craig said the real-time crime center also can be used to monitor areas where computer-generated statistics show a rise in crime.

The idea of linking to IP addresses of computers running the cameras has been discussed with past police chiefs in Detroit, according to Auday Arabo, president of the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers.

The Michigan-based group represents more than 4,000 independent retailers, including a few hundred grocery stores and convenience stores in Detroit. It would lead to "quicker response times" and "allow law enforcement to see what's going on," Arabo said.

"In a city like Detroit, it's a no-brainer," he added. "Crime hinders Detroit. You really have nothing to lose if you have nothing to hide."

But opening that door might also lead to governmental intrusions, said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan.

"We don't want our city turned into a police state where the government has the power to track our every move," he said. "In a free society, people should not be inhibited to holding hands, walking down the street or kissing their partner on Valentine's Day and think the police are watching."