Study: Detroit surveillance program likely contributed to 'significant' decline in crime
Project Green Light gives businesses the opportunity to install highly visible green lights and high-definition surveillance cameras that feed into the police department's Real Time Crime Center
By Christine Ferretti and George Hunter
The Detroit News
DETROIT — Arrests for carjackings, shootings and robberies are up in the city in recent years, but how much of that success can be credited to a controversial surveillance program is unclear, a multi-year analysis found.
The Project Green Light program, launched six years ago to help stem violent crimes, likely contributed to a "significant" decline in carjackings, robberies and shootings in Detroit since 2016, according to the study released earlier this year.
But the four-year evaluation by Michigan State University, however, couldn't determine whether the program is largely responsible for the declines or if it played a smaller role along with other recent crimefighting initiatives in Detroit.
"I don't think that our study is the conclusive end-all, thumbs up or thumbs down on this type of approach," said Edmund McGarrell, a co-author and professor in MSU's school of criminal justice of Green Light. "Over time, the picture should become more clear."
Hailed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in 2016 as "the next generation of violence reduction," the program offers businesses the opportunity to install highly visible green lights and high-definition surveillance cameras that feed into the Police Department's Real Time Crime Center.
Businesses appear to recognize the benefit. In 2016, Green Light had 77 locations. By 2017, it added 138 businesses; 235 sites joined in 2018; and 204 more establishments in 2019. Despite the pandemic, 62 new businesses signed on in 2020, the MSU report notes.
The study, which was requested by Detroit Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López, looked at data from 2017-19. While stipulating it's difficult to quantify how much Green Light has helped, the study concluded the program's overall influence on crime trends in Detroit is "limited."
The study's findings come as Detroit's City Council works to hash out an ordinance governing implementation of surveillance technology and amid calls to direct more policing dollars toward mental health services and substance abuse intervention.
Detroit police Chief James Craig defended Green Light, arguing it's paying off and the study attempts to quantify things that can't be measured.
"Part of it (the report) was complimentary of Green Light, but one thing that stands out is that they say there's no way to tell how much crime it's prevented," Craig said. "But we can never know if a criminal sees the green light and decides not to rob someone; it's not like he's going to come into the police station and tell us, 'I was planning to rob the gas station on Davison, but I saw the green light and decided against it.'"
But for Castañeda-López, who has advocated for the city to curb investment in the effort, the lack of clarity over the effectiveness of Green Light is evidence that some police department funding should be directed elsewhere.
"It reaffirms my hesitations that I've had about the program for this entire time," said Castañeda-López, who voted this month against the city's 2021-22 fiscal budget plan, citing a desire to have $40 million from the police department's $327 million budget go toward social services instead.
Castañeda-López said Detroit's elected leaders should invest in programs "that actually will statistically improve neighborhoods and their quality of life."
"No one is asking for an officer on each corner, nor a camera on each corner," she added. "They want to have resources in their community."
'Difficult to specify'
Since Green Light's inception, carjackings citywide have declined "substantially" — dropping at an overall rate of 38% from 2016 to 2019 — at participating and non-participating sites, MSU's evaluation found.
Fatal and nonfatal shootings have declined 27% since 2016, compared with the five years prior.
But the authors cautioned it's challenging to pinpoint the individual impact of Green Light over other programs implemented alongside it, including Operation Ceasefire, which has focused on curbing gang violence, and Project Safe Neighborhoods, which has encouraged community-based solutions to violent crime.
"When I put my strict, cautionary evaluation hat on, I have to concede it becomes very difficult to specify if we do see an impact on carjacking, to what extent is that Green Light? To what extent is that CeaseFire?" said McGarrell, who also is director of the Michigan Justice Statistics Center.
The report, finalized in February, surfaced late last month after Castañeda-López inquired about it during city budget deliberations.
Craig said Green Light was created to reduce carjackings and robberies primarily at gas stations and liquor stores, and "the results are there."
The first year Green Light was implemented, carjackings dropped 39% from the previous year, while robberies fell 17%. There were 3,593 robberies and 532 carjackings in the city in 2015; last year, there were 1,843 robberies and 221 carjackings, reductions of 49% and 57%, respectively, police figures show.
The study noted while it "cannot directly attribute the citywide decline" (in carjackings) to Green Light, it is the type of program that would have a deterrent effect. That's reinforced, it added, with the decline in carjackings at Green Light locations, despite a significant increase in the volume of businesses participating over time.
"In addition to having fewer carjackings and robberies, anecdotally, we're hearing good things about Green Light from business owners and community members," Craig said. "Crimes have not been totally eliminated — we still make arrests at Green Light locations — but it's not nearly what it was."
Castañeda-López said the city's focus should still be on the root causes of crime.
"If we really want to talk about being able to prevent and reduce crime, the conversation must shift from just a policing standpoint to talking about safety in a true definition, which encompasses these other societal factors that play into creating crime," she said.
Mike Saad, owner of Starter's Bar & Grill on Plymouth in northwest Detroit, was among the first group of business owners to sign up for Green Light when it was launched. He said the program is responsible for getting rid of loiterers outside of his establishment.
"It's been excellent; it's changed the dynamic of the neighborhood for me," he said. "I used to get rowdy people back in the day; now, they see that green light and I don't have any problems whatsoever. It's been a godsend."
Saad said he feels comforted that officers visit his business regularly, one of the program's perks, he noted.
"Usually, police only come in when there's a problem, and that's your only interaction with them," he said. "So now, the officers will come in once or twice a week. ... They get to see the inside of the businesses without being called because there was a problem."
Longtime Starter's customer Jamiel Martin said he supports Project Green Light.
"It's helped police arrest violent criminals, and I'll always support that," the 47-year-old Detroit resident said. "I understand that some people are concerned about privacy, but I'm more concerned about violent criminals."
Mike Moses, owner of First Class Liquor on East Warren, said he pays more than $300 per month for Green Light services. Moses said he sees the program as "just a money-making scam for the city."
"I have it, but it's just for the look, basically," he said. "It's not really doing anything. Maybe the cops might come faster, but it really doesn't make a difference.
"Having Green Light didn't stop one of my regular customers from getting carjacked last year. Someone jumped in his car and took off."
Each establishment is responsible for buying and installing the cameras, which is an estimated $4,000 to $6,000 per site, as well as monthly fees of up to $150 for cloud-based video storage.
Detroit police Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood said the department isn't aware of how much has been collected in fees and costs for the program. The department, she said, doesn't receive any of the money business owners pay into Green Light. Rather, it goes to the companies that provide the equipment and services.
The city has more than 3,000 Green Light cameras and 700-plus participants. Last year, 62% of Green Light participants were retail shops, 25% service organizations and 13% were multi-unit residential.
The MSU report notes Green Light participation was associated with increased clearance by arrest for carjackings and robberies. But given the relatively small number of arrests at Green Light locations that had reached final adjudication, "it is difficult to assess the impact of PGLD on convictions and sentencing."
Co-author McGarrell said completion of the report lagged as researchers waited for cases to make their way through the court system. Other complicating factors, he said, have been the continued rollout of the program over time and an uptick in calls for service at participating stations.
"It just makes it complicated in terms of being able to detect a clear impact," McGarrell said. "For a variety of reasons, it's not clear cut. It's easier to study in a neighborhood or at a precinct level than a small geographic area."
McGarrell said there is "promising evidence" that Green Light can have a positive impact on public safety, but "with all of these qualifications that I offer and one study, in one city, we would want to build additional evidence."
Use of Green Light and other surveillance technology in Detroit has been contentious.
Civil rights advocates and residents have argued Green Light is intrusive and discriminatory, and the protest group Detroit Will Breathe has called for its elimination. City officials point out that the program is voluntary.
Protesters also have concerns the police department's facial recognition program uses feeds from Green Light locations along with other video sources.
City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield spearheaded legislation several years ago to bring transparency and accountability when surveillance contracts are considered in Detroit. The council is expected to take up the issue in May.
Sheffield said the ordinance, if approved, would apply to all types of surveillance equipment, whether it's for traffic cameras, illegal dumping or police department initiatives.
"This ordinance is not anti-facial recognition or anti-cameras, it's pro-transparency and accountability in making sure that council has adequate information when we're voting on this particular procurement for technology," she said. "It empowers us with more information and it also gives the community more of a voice in expressing why they are for or against it."
The ordinance, she said, was in the works prior to Green Light and wasn't crafted in response to community complaints.
Sheffield said Green Light has some benefits, but she hasn't reviewed MSU's report yet and is conducting her own research on the impact it has had on crime in the city.
Similar policing tactics
Project Green Light has inspired similar policing programs in communities nearby.
Charles Lackey, director of Information Technology in Highland Park, launched "Project Blue Light," a concept based on Green Light, but expanded it with two-way speakers to businesses that will enable police to talk to business owners in real time.
Highland Park and Ecorse in February jointly launched their blue light program to cut costs. Eleven businesses in the two cities are signed up for Blue Light, Lackey said.
Unlike Detroit's program, Lackey said after participants pay an initial $2,300 for lights, four high-definition cameras and signs, there are no monthly fees.
"There have been about seven or eight arrests that came from officers monitoring the system," he said. It's a little too early to say for sure how it's going, but so far, so good."
(c)2021 The Detroit News