Lansing Surveillance Cameras Are Costly, Ineffective and Invasive, ACLU Report Warns

August 28, 2012

LANSING, Mich. – In a comprehensive report released today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asks the City of Lansing to remove all government surveillance cameras installed in residential neighborhoods since 2008. Citing the detrimental effects on privacy, the unjustified cost and ineffectiveness of surveillance cameras, the report, Eyes in the Sky: Lansing Residential Surveillance and its Intrusion on Privacy, urges the city to protect residents from privacy invasions and abuse.

“We don’t want to live in a police state where the government has the power to track the moves of every person, even in their own neighborhoods,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director. “This report, like studies from around the world, shows that video surveillance is a costly, invasive and ineffective means of deterring and fighting crime. We encourage elected city officials in Lansing and throughout the state to use their precious law enforcement dollars to adopt more effective ways to fight crime without violating the privacy rights of their residents.”

In March 2008, with the approval of the Lansing City Council, the Lansing Police Department (LPD) installed its first set of surveillance cameras in residential neighborhoods. The ACLU of Michigan estimates that the system has cost the city at least $2.3 million to install and maintain the cameras and the laptops that allow police to view streaming video in their patrol cars. The cost of maintenance is expected to increase as the warranties on the cameras expire.

At least 26 surveillance cameras now operate throughout the city engaging in 24-hour monitoring utilizing high-definition color, night vision, and focus features that work in even the most severe environmental conditions. The cameras provide a 360-degree view of an area up to 500 feet away and have sophisticated zoom capabilities.

For instance, a police officer can read words on a piece of paper in someone’s hand within 50 feet of a camera, a license plate from 300 feet away, or recognize a face from 400 feet away. Police personnel monitor the cameras live from the police station and everything viewed by the cameras is digitally recorded.

In its detailed report, the ACLU of Michigan warns that the system of cameras could be used to monitor peaceful protests and other constitutionally protected activities including the movements of innocent people throughout the city. The private information collected by cameras is also ripe for abuse, the ACLU states, and could be used for voyeurism, stalking, or harassment. Furthermore, an independent study of the cameras conducted by a researcher at Oakland University concludes that African American residents of Lansing are twice as likely to be under constant surveillance in their neighborhoods as white Lansing residents.

"I'm particularly concerned about the impact that cameras have in minority neighborhoods and the cost to a city that has a budget deficit,” said Randy Watkins, a Lansing resident and leader of the newly-formed organization, Coalition Against Monitoring and Surveillance (CAMS). “It does not appear to me to be a cost effective use of police funds."

In addition, according to records provided to the ACLU by the LPD, no major violent crimes have been solved by the use of cameras, including the homicide of a Lansing teenager in one of the areas under surveillance. Police indicate that catching littering, public urination and open alcohol have been amongst the most frequent uses of camera footage. Since 2008, the only significant crime where cameras may have helped lead to an arrest was a suspected breaking and entering in June 2011.

Lansing is not the only city to see minimal results from investing in surveillance operations. A comprehensive study conducted by the United Kingdom found that its 4.2 million cameras did not reduce crime. In Oakland, Calif., Police Chief Joseph Samuels, Jr. concluded that “...there is no conclusive way to establish that the presence of video surveillance cameras resulted in the prevention or reduction of crime.”

In Michigan, officials in the City of Detroit approved one of the largest video surveillance systems in the country, only to eliminate it 14 years later because the high maintenance and personnel costs did not justify the minimal results.

In addition to asking Lansing officials to dismantle the cameras, the report contains a list of recommendations – Lansing officials should explore and expand the use of alternate crime-fighting tools, including community policing; Lansing must conduct high quality independent statistical evaluations on the efficacy of the cameras; ensure that strict privacy protections are in place and conduct and report the results of an annual self-audit for compliance with operational policies and procedures; and ensure that all future decisions on surveillance should be made with active community involvement.

Read the report and access a toolkit to protect your privacy

Related Issues: