GR officials, NAACP announce recommended surveillance changes

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After working with local agencies for about a year, the city of Grand Rapids is updating its surveillance policies.

The city mayor, manager, deputy police chief and the fire chief stood next to members of the NAACP of Greater Grand Rapids on Tuesday afternoon as they announced the recommended changes.

“We know that preventative measures like this saves lives and protects the civil liberties and civil rights of those who might be impacted by the use and deployment of surveillance technology,” said NAACP Grand Rapids President Cle Jackson.

The recommended changes would apply to surveillance video taken by public safety departments in the city.

Currently the fire department says they use video surveillance via their drone program. Fire Chief John Lehman says they use drones to assess building damage or following a disaster.

The city says the changes would also apply to body cam video and helicopter surveillance used by police.

“The technology that we currently use at the police department is used to keep the public safe and that’s the only reason why it’s used,” said Deputy Chief Scott Rifenberg. “A lot of our technology is used with the bomb team. We have one of the only bomb teams on this side of the state and we have robots with cameras on them and that technology works great. It keeps the officers safe, keeps the public safe. The officer doesn’t have to go down to a suspected (explosive).”

The NAACP says the recommendations they came up with while working with the city gives citizens the ability to be more involved in the process before the city acquires or buys new surveillance technology. It also allows citizens the ability to chime in how surveillance technology is used once the city gets it.

The recommendations are geared toward making sure the surveillance technology is used equitably too. The NAACP says statistically, surveillance technology is disproportionately used in Black and brown neighborhoods.

“I think if we look at surveillance technology and devices that are used across the country, I mean let’s be honest, we know that typically Black and brown people and poor white folks are disproportionately impacted. I think a lot of the narrative or the argument to justify that would be the crime stats in certain wards, neighborhoods, communities,” said Jackson. “It is critically important that we be preventative instead of reactionary and I think that’s what this policy does.”

Some of the recommended changes include:

  • Mandatory public hearings prior to purchase, use or deployment of surveillance technology or service
  • Published annual audits of use of surveillance technology
  • A system for citizens to file complaints regarding misuse or overuse of surveillance technology
  • Establishment of city surveillance oversight committee
  • Prohibited uses including harassment, discrimination, intimidation

The NAACP says the ability to oversee the use of surveillance will be important in maintaining transparency. They say the audit data will be required to be very detailed also.

“There’s surveillance after action reports that will be published annually,” said Carlton T. Mayers, who serves as the special advisor on public safety for the NAACP of Greater Grand Rapids. “It does a great job at not only outlining the impact that the use of the technology has had on violating civil liberties and civil rights broken down by race, gender, age and also location but most importantly it provides data about complaints about surveillance use.”

The city says under the new recommendations, gun detection technology like ShotSpotter, which has been up for consideration in recent years, is less likely to be pursued. They say they’re currently looking into acquiring aerial surveillance technology instead, which would allow police to have fewer officers physically on scene while maintaining safety for the surrounding community.

“Looking at the data, ShotSpotter is not effective at reducing gun violence. However, it does increase overpolicing of specific communities like I mentioned: Black and brown. So just knowing the data, it makes sense to not invest in that kind of technology or if you are going to invest in it, put the proper safeguards in place,” said Mayers.

The city says the goal is to protect its citizens and build greater community through transparency.

“People want their privacy to be protected, but there’s also the concern about making sure that the community can be safe and policing in this era, we’re in a technological age and it’s hard to have a conversation about any city service without the use of technology. So, citizens need to be reassured that when we buy technology, it won’t be overly invasive or infringe upon their rights,” said City Manager Mark Washington.

The NAACP says they will be educating the public over the next few months about the implementation of the new surveillance policies. They say they’re also working to revise GRPD’s youth interaction policy.

The revised surveillance policy is expected to be officially approved by Grand Rapids City Commission in January. To read the full revised policy, click here.

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