Opinion: Detroit is at a crossroads about safety and surveillance, City Council must choose the right path

ShotSpotter will not solve gun violence

click to enlarge A ShotSpotter incident review center. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
A ShotSpotter incident review center.

On Tuesday, Oct. 4, Detroit City Council will meet for the third time to decide whether to use $7 million dollars in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) COVID-19 relief funding to expand the controversial gunshot detection technology ShotSpotter. Members of Detroit City Council have twice delayed a vote that, if passed, would install more gunshot detection devices throughout the city and expand the reach of Detroit’s already sprawling surveillance network.

There is no doubt that gun violence is a problem in the city. But as dozens of Detroiters pointed out during public comment last week, ShotSpotter will not prevent, reduce, or solve gun violence. It will, however, deprive the city of badly needed funding to address the root causes of violence, and, as other cities have shown, increase the likelihood of violent encounters with police for Black and brown Detroiters. For these reasons and many others, Detroiters came out in force to tell Council that ARPA funding should be used to help the city recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19, not expand policing.

Although ShotSpotter’s public relations campaign and members of City Council tout the expansion of the supposedly “race neutral” technology as a structural investment in the community, many residents pointed out that spending $7 million on the ineffective and dangerous technology would only expand the use of surveillance technology and policing. In cities across the country, the use of ShotSpotter is being challenged in Cleveland and Chicago, while its use has been discontinued in Charlotte, North Carolina and San Antonio, Texas following ongoing public criticism of the program’s controversial outcome and the company’s lack of transparency.

Residents also identified a number of investments that would be immediately impactful in increasing the safety and wellbeing of Detroiters, which included affordable housing and food and water, clean and operating schools, employment training and re-entry support programs for previously incarcerated individuals, an operating right to counsel program for low-income Detroiters facing evictions, and expanded public transportation services to name a few. A recent poll conducted by Campaign Zero and YouGov found that 80% of District 1 residents and 81% of District 4 residents favored spending $7 million in ARPA funds on housing relief over ShotSpotter.

In response to these objections, some City Council members floated the idea of using the city’s General Fund to pay for the expansion of ShotSpotter. But the real issue isn’t where the money is coming from. The primary concern of many Detroiters is wasting $7 million on an unproven, dangerous technology that could be better invested in real sources of safety, like housing, education, job training, recreation, and healthcare.

For decades, Detroit residents, activists, and elders have implemented proven programs that offer compelling alternatives to expanding surveillance in the city. As continued acts of police violence around the nation over the past decade have fueled the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, Detroiters have consistently organized against the harms of policing and surveillance in the city.

While Detroit police, city officials, and mainstream media have tried to alienate activists and silence critiques of police violence and surveillance technologies like ShotSpotter and Project Green Light (PGL), younger generations of Detroiters are carrying on local legacies of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements to demand an end to police violence by reinvesting in community resources and institutions that are proven to increase public safety.

One of the longest-running community organizations in Detroit working on issues of police violence and community safety has been the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality (DCAPB). Formed in 1996 by Dr. Gloria House (Aneb Kgositsile), Marge Parsons, and Ron Scott, DCAPB developed a five-point program to lead the charge against police violence. A key point in the program has been Peace Zones 4 Life (PZ4L), which works to create community-based approaches to safety while preventing police violence.

The three main goals of the PZ4L program are: the de-escalation of conflicts within communities and of hostilities between community members and public/private institutions; the de-escalation of randomized violence in communities; and developing institutions to foster a “sense of empowerment” and create a “self-sustaining community,” which will promote safety and prevent crime.

Creating Peace Zones begins with an assessment of challenges, needs, and opportunities in the community, through which leaders and organizers are identified. The practice of de-escalation and mediation are carried out at conflict resolution centers in neutral places (like churches and community centers), while groups of young folks are trained to keep the peace in the community. Lastly, PZ4L incorporates artistic storytelling initiatives to chronicle neighborhood challenges and celebrate community heroes to “connect individuals and catalyze change.”

Some may remember the physical manifestation of the PZ4L project on Detroit’s Eastside that included the building of low wooden platforms and painted signs, designating open greenspaces as Peace Zones where conflict resolution could be conducted by neighbors. These Peace Zones demonstrated that space for non-violent and non-punitive conflict resolution already exists in Detroit’s neighborhoods, and that peace and safety can be accomplished without exiling people from their immediate community.

While surveillance programs like ShotSpotter and PGL rely on digital technologies that trigger police dispatch without actual human confirmation of harm or violence, PZ4L relies on our ability as neighbors to look after the safety and well being of our communities. It also encourages us to prevent and mediate harm by understanding conflict and violence as the results of unmet needs that can be addressed through human connection and community support. The concept of Peace Zones, organizer Shea Howell explained, shifts conversations away from control and punishment to drawing from community traditions to “create peaceful relationships among us.”

The PZ4L program has been adopted in several neighborhoods and influenced the emergence of organizations like the Detroit Safety Team (DST), which offers training in Safety Training, Community Building, and Restorative Processes. DST was formed by John Sloan III, Rasha Almulkaiki, and Curtis Renee, who grew up learning about Peace Zones and community safety from veteran freedom fighters like Ron Scott and Wayne Curtis. To develop community-based alternatives to policing and surveillance, DST is building a City-Wide Safety Team through its Neighborhood Fellowship Program, which brings together cohorts of city residents to receive training in mediation, intervention, and de-escalation practices through restorative justice programs.

One of the most visible projects to build upon the foundations laid by organizations like DCAPB and the Detroit Safety Team has been Green Chairs, Not Green Lights. The initiative was started in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood on Detroit’s East Side. Operating under the slogan of “return to front porches,” Green Chairs encourages people to think back to the days when neighbors sat on their front porches to look out for one another, keep an eye on the block, and create a strong social fabric in the community. Green Chairs envisions a city where people keep each other safe by dealing with harm at a neighborhood level instead of relying on surveillance and policing.

Since its inception at Feedom Freedom Growers in 2019, organizers have hosted Green Chairs workshops in neighborhoods around the city as Detroiters have embraced a vision of neighborhood-based safety. “There has not been one person I’ve talked to about Green Chairs, Not Green Lights who hasn’t said, ‘I want to hear more. That sounds wonderful. We need more of that,” organizer Myrtle Thompson-Curtis explained.

Meanwhile, other organizations have listened to Detroiters’ concerns about surveillance and called for the reallocation of resources away from policing and toward real sources of community safety. In October of 2018, the Detroit chapter of the national organization Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) launched a campaign to challenge the expansion of police surveillance through Project Green Light. The campaign quickly evolved into Green Light Black Futures (GLBF), a Black-centered and queer-led coalition dedicated to fighting against the use of hyper-surveillance, over-policing, and facial recognition technology in Detroit.

The coalition launched a city-wide call to shift the responsibility of safety out of the hands of the Detroit Police Department and into the hands of community members. Between 2019 and 2021, GLBF built a coalition of local and national organizations, individuals, and community members, who mobilized neighbors, created media to shift harmful pro-Project Green Light narratives, and hosted community events, trainings and workshops about building a culture of safety, and abolition across Detroit.

In 2020, GLBF launched a Community Safety Survey to better understand Detroiters’ feelings about surveillance and perceptions of safety in their communities. The results of the Community Safety Survey show that community members define safety in complicated and thoughtful ways, prioritizing human relationships, access to resources, safe environments, respect and dignity. When the survey asked community members to identify the causes of “crime,” they identified systemic factors and were quick to propose solutions for investing in real sources of safety in their neighborhood, like home repair grants, affordable housing, eviction prevention, water security, job training, schools, libraries, and community centers.

Protests against police violence escalated in 2020 following the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Following several days of marches and demonstrations, the organization Detroit Will Breathe (DWB) was formed in early June to coordinate mass resistance to police violence and systemic racism in the city. During the second week of daily marches, activists developed a list of demands, which included defunding and demilitarizing DPD and ending Project Green Light and facial recognition. The list also included demands for reinvesting in housing, water affordability, healthcare, and disability justice to promote public safety.

Though the demands were presented to and dismissed by Mayor Duggan, the momentum created by daily marches and public meetings facilitated by Detroit Will Breathe built on popular demands for the city to direct investment toward services that Detroiters want and need. As the Detroit Community Technology Project explained in 2019, such reinvestment in communities “would actually be effective in reducing crime and improving public safety,” unlike continued investment in policing and surveillance.

These examples illustrate some of the ways Detroiters are working to build a culture of safety without relying on surveillance technologies like ShotSpotter and Project Green Light. Other organizations like the Detroit Justice Center have also shown that children are dreaming of a city that invests in community well-being rather than policing and prisons.

Over the past several months, many Detroiters have built on these struggles and joined forces to resist the expansion of ShotSpotter. In September, Detroit Action, We the People-Michigan, Michigan Liberation, Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE), the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, the Detroit Justice Center, and Detroit Will Breathe coordinated a week of action to oppose the expansion of ShotSpotter. Through public forums, canvassing, and community outreach, this newly formed coalition has listened to the concerns of Detroiters, informed residents about the potential risks of expanding ShotSpotter, and turned people out for City Council meetings to oppose ongoing spending on surveillance technologies.

The campaign #StopShotSpotter represents a broad coalition of organizations nationally who continue to voice deep concern about the impact of ShotSpotter on Black, brown, and poor people. The campaign’s demands call for cities to cancel their ShotSpotter contracts and “embrace the science, which is clear that what most effectively addresses gun violence is a public health approach, not spending millions on flashy new law enforcement surveillance tools,” echoing the concerns Detroiters continue to bring to the Board of Police Commissioners and City Council.

The #StopShotSpotter campaign declares, “It's time for ShotSpotter to do the right thing- stop selling products that perpetuate injustices and start listening to communities calling for real solutions to gun violence.” If Detroiters’ long term political organizing and ongoing calls for deep investment into social infrastructure goes unheard by members of City Council on Tuesday, the city and its communities will feel the effects for decades to come. This is a chance for Detroit’s leadership to listen to residents' clearly defined recommendations as to how safety and wellbeing can be cultivated across the city, which does not include the expansion of ShotSpotter.

Rae Baker and Peter Blackmer were members of the Green Light Black Futures coalition research team during the organization’s operation, and respectively teach as assistant professors in the University of Cincinnati’s Education and Community Action Research program and Eastern Michigan University’s Department of Africology and African American Studies.

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