Editorial Roundup: Michigan

Detroit Free Press. May 14, 2021.

Editorial: Detroit City Council should adopt this surveillance technology ordinance

The Detroit City Council will soon vote on an ordinance that would offer a template for the adoption of surveillance technology by any city department.

We urge the council to adopt the Community Input Over Government Surveillance ordinance.

It offers structure for what is likely to be the inevitable, continued use of technology that has broad implications for civil rights and disparate outcomes in policing.

Detroit already employs surveillance technology, most notably through its Project Greenlight, a five-year-old program that offers priority 911 service to businesses that agree to install cameras accessible by the Detroit Police Department’s real-time crime center, and its use of facial recognition technology, purchased in 2017. The city also has traffic cameras, and recently began using ShotSpotter technology to detect and locate gunshots.

Project Greenlight and facial recognition technology were both were implemented without the robust standards and provisions for public input that the proposed ordinance would require. The need for stricter oversight is manifest: the DPD has wrongly arrested at least two citizens after they were misidentified by the department’s problematic facial recognition software.

There’s a long history of using surveillance technology in this country to police Black and brown Americans, dating back to “lantern laws” that required people of color in pre-Revolutionary War New York City to illuminate their faces with a bright light after dark, explained Chad Marlow, senior advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU. More recently, critics have shown the that the facial recognition technology utilized by many law enforcement agencies does a poor job of matching Black and brown faces.

Expensive surveillance technology is no substitute for the more meaningful investments Detroit and other cities need to make in communities. But the use of such technology seems destined to grow. The Project Greenlight camera network has expanded exponentially since its debut. In 2019, the Detroit City Council approved a $4 million expansion of the department’s Real Time Crime Center, and last fall the the city renewed its contract with its incumbent provider of facial recognition software.

The proposed ordinance City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield developed in collaboration with the ACLU would establish long overdue requirements for community input and accountability. It has won the support of outgoing Police Chief James Craig.

The ordinance would require any city department that proposed purchasing surveillance technology to:

Advise city council members how the technology will be used and how and where it will be deployed;

Explain how data will be collected, protected, deleted and/or stored; with which agencies data may be shared; what training will be required of operators; and how citizen complaints will be logged

Hold a public hearing

Submit an annual report detailing new acquisitions of surveillance technology, including the cost, and an accounting of citizen complaints, and

Establish whistleblower protections

Sheffield’s ordinance is a response to concerns raised by Detroiters after 2017, when the Detroit Police Department purchased more than $1 million in facial recognition technology software from South Carolina-based DataWorks without any public hearings or even a Board of Police Commissioners-approved policy governing its use. After months of outcry from community activists, those hearings happened, and a policy was adopted. The CIOGS ordinance would reverse that backwards process, requiring community input and public hearings first.

Although it was developed specifically for Detroit, the ordinance offers a template that can be used anywhere, and 19 communities across the country, including Grand Rapids, have adopted similar ordinances. Communities whose police departments have yet to acquire sophisticated surveillance technology should act now to make sure those powerful tools are deployed responsibly.

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Traverse City Record-Eagle. May 16, 2021.

Editorial: Ruling in TCAPS case is a win for all Michiganders

It isn’t about the contents of a single document.

Sure, the parents, teachers, students and taxpayers whose interests are tied to Traverse City Area Public Schools would like to better understand the complaints — ones apparently contained in a letter presented in a closed-session meeting — that precipitated former Superintendent Ann Cardon’s sudden departure from the district in October 2019.

They, and we, would appreciate the opportunity to fully understand what compelled school trustees to fork over $180,000 to the school leader as they ushered her out the door — the same employee the elected panel unanimously praised as they hired her 78 days earlier.

What did we get for our money? Silence? Absolution from some liability? Or did the payment simply avert embarrassment for district officials?

More than 19 months later we still don’t know what was so important about that document. And that’s a problem.

But long ago, our legal battle against district officials’ gambit to hide public records took on infinitely more gravity than the closed-door shenanigans of a single school board in northern Michigan.

At the moment school trustees, and their lawyers, decided to appeal 13th Circuit Court Judge Kevin Elsenheimer’s declaration that they had erred in withholding the complaints from public disclosure, they made the case a referendum on the future of government transparency in Michigan.

Knowingly or not, TCAPS trustees and top administrators, in their effort to overturn Elsenheimer’s decision, launched an effort to rewrite Michigan’s transparency statutes. And not for the better.

Had they succeeded, elected officials statewide would’ve been granted license to hide public records from disclosure by simply carrying them into closed-session meetings and claiming they are part of the minutes of that obscured discussion. Contracts, settlements, land deals, personnel complaints, salary schedules — records to which the public has a right to inspect could be withheld.

We, and just about everyone who cares about government transparency in Michigan, breathed a sigh of relief Thursday when the Michigan Court of Appeals released its unanimous decision affirming Elsenheimer’s judgment. Thankfully, that published decision will become prevailing case law on the issue — that is if TCAPS officials don’t attempt to elevate the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.

But let’s be honest, our relief was in holding the line against yet another attack against government transparency in a state that regularly earns worst-in-the-nation ranking for public access to the inner workings of government. A state where lawmakers continue to refuse to install even a basic reforms to bring the legislature and the governor under the purview of transparency laws. A state where government agencies exploit cavernous loopholes in the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts to hide their actions from public view.

We also wouldn’t be at this juncture if not for support from both our corporate leadership and our community -- the latter which makes it clear, through their subscriptions, advertising and grant dollars, that they want accountable government.

In the past four weeks alone, Record-Eagle journalists have received invoices from both state and local officials demanding thousands of dollars for access to public records — invoices meant to discourage Michiganders from seeking records created and maintained with their tax dollars.

So, yes, we breathed a sigh of relief when Court of Appeals Chief Judge Christopher Murray during a recent hearing in the case said that TCAPS’ argument “makes no sense.”

But that relief was short-lived as we turned back to our work with the knowledge that this was not the first senseless attack on transparency in our state, and it surely won’t be the last.

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(Marquette) Mining Journal. May 15, 2021.

Editorial: Redistricting gives residents opportunity to get involved

While the 2022 election season may seem distant at this point, there is an important upcoming opportunity for citizens to participate in a civic process that will impact the 2022 elections: the upcoming Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission public hearings.

Locally, the League of Women Voters of Marquette County is urging voters to attend Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission public hearings taking place from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Northern Center at Northern Michigan University.

Participants can attend in person or virtually, with the virtual meeting accessible on the Redistricting Michigan Facebook page or Michigan Secretary of State YouTube channel.

We join the league in urging residents to attend, as this the state’s voting district boundaries are redrawn just once each decade. It’s critical to stay informed and give feedback during these hearings, as the commission will use 2020 census data to create new electoral district boundaries that will be used in the 2022 elections. Furthermore, this is the first time the electoral district boundaries will be drawn by an independent commission, as opposed to politicians.

“Redistricting in Michigan has been a very political process that has historically taken place behind closed doors and out of the public eye,” said David Allen, LWVMC Board Director, in a press release. “This new independent process gives everyday Michigan residents the ability to draw the state’s legislative and congressional districts, which is why public participation in these hearings is an important part of the democratic process.”

We believe conducting this process in a fair, transparent nonpartisan manner is critical to preserving our democracy, as the boundaries of districts can have monumental and long-lasting political impacts.

“The redistricting that followed the 2010 census suddenly became less fair as partisan mapmakers used newly available information, technology and software to draw maps that greatly favor one party while respecting the equal population requirement,” Jon Eguia, a professor in Michigan State University’s department of economics who researches partisan advantages in redistricting maps, told Michigan State University’s MSU Today in an Oct. 7 article. “State court rulings, civic activism and constitutional reforms over the past few years have served as a corrective of these excesses in many states, including in Michigan, where the constitutional amendment of 2018 … removed the power to draw district maps from the state assembly, and put it in the hands of an Independent Citizen Commission.”

This commission represents our chance to make the redistricting process fair to all citizens. We hope our residents will take this first-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in the public hearings, stay informed, provide feedback, ask questions and keep the commission accountable for its decisions on electoral district boundaries, as this process can impact each and every citizen.

Voters can find registration links and the procedure for making public comments on the MICRC website.

A full list of public hearings is available on the Secretary of State’s website and RedistrictingMichigan.org.

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