Law enforcement news in 2020 was unpredictable, contentious, and scrutinized by many.
Detroit saw a summer of civil unrest that will be remembered for generations.
Thousands of people hit the streets daily for months to protest police brutality and the treatment of Black people in the U.S. Tear gas coated the sky, rubber bullets flew, and hundreds of protesters were arrested. All the while, the novel coronavirus ran its course through Detroit, killing more people in the city than anything else aside from heart disease.
Also in 2020, the FBI said it foiled a plot involving more than a dozen men planning to kidnap and possibly kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; the Detroit Police Department significantly expanded its surveillance capabilities on several fronts; Detroit had a bloody year, with a sharp increase in shootings and homicides; Wayne County’s sheriff died of COVID-19; and despite many fewer cars on the road, there was an uptick in fatal crashes and freeway shootings.
As surveillance technology rolls out in Detroit in 2021, its effects on crime will be analyzed, as will its impact on civil rights.
Whether the presidential transition of power and continuing efforts to distribute vaccines will cool civil unrest is yet to be known and will be anxiously, carefully watched by the state, country, and world. Here’s what’s on tap as the year unfolds:
A brazen alleged plot to kidnap and kill Whitmer in October followed months later by the storming of the U.S. Capitol with several rioters hailing from Michigan has brought international attention to domestic terror and white nationalism brewing in Michigan.
Nationally, white supremacists and other like-minded extremists conducted two-thirds of the terrorist plots and attacks in the U.S. in 2020, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Of the 14 men involved in the alleged kidnapping plot, 12 were from Michigan and several were from metro Detroit.
Six of the men face life in prison if convicted of conspiracy to kidnap, a federal charge. They didn’t only speak about kidnapping the governor, prosecutors say, but also scoped out Whitmer’s vacation home, drew maps, conducted firearms training, and tried to buy explosives that they planned to use for blowing up a bridge near Whitmer’s vacation home to slow down law enforcement’s response.
Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker set a March 23 trial date for the six men facing federal charges, although that date is subject to change.
Violence in Detroit
Homicides and shootings sharply rose in Detroit in 2020.
Detroit had 327 homicides in 2020, a 19% increase from the 275 that occurred in 2019, and 1,173 nonfatal shootings, a 53% increase from a year earlier, according to Detroit Police Department statistics.
“It’s clear that the pandemic was the single-most factor in driving violence,” DPD Chief James Craig said in January.
There were a total of 5,904 gun arrests in the city — a 102% increase from 2019 and a 200% increase from 2018.
Although Detroit experienced an uptick in homicides and shootings, rapes and robberies were down 36% and 21%, respectively. Property crime was down 24% from 2019.
Craig attributed the decreases to the stay-at-home order early in the pandemic. But the stay-at-home order also resulted in increased domestic violence, he said.
As things slowly return to normal in 2021, Craig said he expects a reduction in gun violence.
“I’m glad we closed the door on 2020, because 2021 has got to be better,” Craig said.
Detroit police technology
The Detroit Police Department made strides in increasing its surveillance capabilities, with new technology being rolled out in 2021.
A gunshot detection system, called ShotSpotter, is expected to be fully live by the spring, covering 6.5 square miles of Detroit.
ShotSpotter sound sensors are mounted on high structures like telephone poles, buildings and streetlights. The technology works by detecting potential gunshots, and an expert with ShotSpotter then verifies it and alerts law enforcement. The process takes less than a minute. ShotSpotter collects the date and time, as well as captures audio clips.
Privacy advocates are concerned with ShotSpotter picking up conversations from residents, which has happened in other U.S. cities.
“This technology can be abused to violate our civil liberties and serve as another form of ‘techno-racism,’ unfairly targeting people of color and poor people. I am primarily concerned that this technology can be used to spy on people and record private conversations,” said Willie Burton, who is on the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, DPD’s civilian oversight body.
Detroit Assistant Police Chief David LeValley has said that police will not have access to audio from the sensors. Experts working at ShotSpotter send police audio clips only after verifying that the sensors indicated gunshots.
Facial recognition has been at the center of controversy in Detroit, especially after national headlines broke when police wrongfully arrested two men for committing crimes of which they were innocent based on a false facial recognition match.
The men were Black. The facial recognition technology Detroit polic
e uses was found to falsely identify Black and Asian faces 10 times to 100 times more than Caucasian faces, according to a 2019 federal study.
Despite the controversy, the Detroit City Council voted in September to extend a $220,000 contract with law enforcement technology DataWorks Plus, which provides DPD with facial recognition software, through 2022.
Detroit police used facial recognition technology 115 times in 2020, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 27, according to department statistics, which led to 69 possible matches.
The photos run through the software were most often pulled from social media, security cameras and Project Green Light cameras, respectively. Facial recognition was most often used in investigations involving aggravated assault, robbery and murder, in that order.
Also approved by the City Council in 2020 was a $3.9 million plan that includes the installation of 215 traffic light-mounted cameras across the city, adding to the roughly 120 traffic cameras that were operating before.
The cameras are expected to be deployed by fall, Detroit Department of Public Works officials said.
Ron Brundidge, director of the Detroit Department of Public Works, said the cameras and other technology will allow the department to collect and analyze traffic data that could help make intersections safer. The technology, he said, will also alert the department when a traffic signal is down.
Brundidge said the cameras cannot be used with facial recognition technology nor can they be equipped with license plate readers.
“This technology doesn’t have that capability,” Brundidge said at a City Council meeting in November.
Footage from the cameras can be used, however, to aid with police investigations.
Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. expressed interest in the cameras’ potential to curb “lawlessness” on Detroit streets, citing widespread reckless driving and hit-and-runs.
Separately, Project Green Light partners, which are businesses that install high-definition cameras that livestream to Detroit police’s real-time crime center, increased by 10% in 2020 to include 733 partners.
Police protest tactics in Detroit
Although Detroit didn’t see the looting and widespread property damage that had occurred in many major U.S. cities, protests were still intense, leaving many injured and arrested, and ultimately leading to a judge temporarily banning police from continuing some of its practices.
The summer of civil unrest in Detroit, like in many other cities, began on May 29, shortly after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Detroit police officers arrested hundreds of demonstrators during the first week of protests. Officers slammed protesters to the ground, pushed and shoved them, hit them with batons and fists, shot them with rubber bullets, ran them over with an SUV and neglected them when they needed medical care, according to protesters’ accounts, news reports, lawsuits and footage from protests. A police officer was charged with felony assault after prosecutors say he fired rubber bullets at three journalists in May.
A federal judge in September temporarily banned Detroit police from using batons, shields, gas, rubber bullets, chokeholds or sound cannons against peaceful protesters.
Craig was highly critical of protesters he deemed radical. He said some protesters threw railroad spikes and rocks at police officers, damaged police vehicles, violated curfew and attempted to overtake an intersection. He blamed outside agitators for coming in from the suburbs and creating issues in the city.
June was the most violent month in Detroit, with nonfatal shootings more than doubling from May and homicides skyrocketing.
Craig attributed the spike in violent crime to pandemic-related stress, the stay-at-home order and protests.
“There was a clear redeployment of police officers from many of our neighborhoods” during protests over the summer, Craig said.
Protests died down by the winter and have remained dormant.
But if any lesson can be learned from 2020, it is that anything can change at a moment’s notice. If protests were to reignite in 2021, or anytime in the next few years, police tactics can be expected to remain under intense scrutiny.
Wild, wild freeways
Like many things in 2020, Michigan State Police officials have called driver conduct on Michigan freeways last year unprecedented.
“I’ve been in the district for about 23 years and I never remember freeway shootings like what we saw in 2020,” said MSP Lt. Mike Shaw, whose district covers Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
Although official numbers won’t be out until spring, Shaw says there was a significant increase in shootings on metro Detroit freeways.
“It’s an obvious increase. It goes along with the increase in violence we’ve seen in the country and in the city that has made its way onto the freeways,” Shaw said. “This isn’t predominantly violence by gang members or people committing other crimes, it’s mostly people upset about someone else not using a turn signal and using a gun to settle it.”
Another MSP official, Metro South Post Cmdr. Lt. Jennifer Johnson, said in late November that police had seized nearly 300 weapons on freeways in Wayne County in the first 11 months of 2020.
“The freeway is a microcosm of crime going on everywhere in the city and county. We’ve seen an increase in shootings on and off the roadways,” Johnson said.
And it’s not just gun violence.
Preliminary numbers indicate 1,032 people died from crashes on Michigan roads in 2020, while the number was 985 in 2019. This is despite traffic volumes being down as much as 60% in the weeks immediately following stay-home advisories and remaining down around 20% through the rest of the year, according to state numbers.
The number of total crashes was down in 2020, Shaw said, and the number of single-vehicle crashes was up, suggesting that the uptick in fatal crashes is a result of speeding, lack of seatbelt wearing, and risky behavior.
“It’ll be interesting to analyze what made people drive the way they did in 2020,” Shaw said. “And it’s not unique to us. This seems to be happening across the country.”
New Detroit police commissioner
The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners had a year of much tension between its members.
Three members demanded the resignation of the chair, and emotions have flared surrounding topics
such as facial recognition technology.
Attorney Linda Bernard once served as general counsel for the board. She is returning, this time as an elected commissioner representing District 2.
In her new role, Bernard says she plans on ensuring the board returns to what it was created to do: protect the rights of citizens, not serve as a rubber-stamp body for the Police Department.
“Former police officers should not be on the board,” Bernard said. “It is there to provide a different perspective from what the Police Department has.”
The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners is the Police Department’s civilian oversight body. It has the ability to establish policies, rules and regulations in consultation with the chief of police and with the approval of the mayor, according to the Detroit City Charter.
The board is composed of 11 civilian members. Detroiters elect seven members by district, and the mayor appoints and the City Council confirms four at-large members. Commissioners serve as unpaid volunteers.
Controversy surrounding the board’s chair, Willie Bell, a former longtime police officer, erupted this year after several commissioners lodged formal complaints against him and called for his resignation, saying he abuses the chairmanship and shuts down proposals that he disagrees with. Bell said his colleagues don’t fully comprehend board rules and that he is fulfilling his role as chair.
The board will vote on a new chair this year.
Bernard says she hopes to assist in making the BOPC more efficient. She seeks to increase cooperation by establishing committees.
“The board’s current structure is ineffective,” Bernard said. “What body of this size doesn’t have committees? It doesn’t make sense, and it makes it harder to get things done.”
Bernard said she also plans on working toward criminal justice reform.
One idea she plans on presenting to the board is a gun buyback program to combat not only gun violence but the unlawful possession of weapons by implementing a buyback program.
She’s proposing $150 per gun and $1 per bullet.
And although the city will have to fork over some cash, Bernard said taxpayers will be spared because there will be fewer arrests, fewer convictions, and less violence.
“We can get thousands of guns off the street and money into the hands of residents,” Bernard said.
Contact Omar Abdel-Baqui: [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @omarabdelb.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Law enforcement in 2021: From terror plots to surveillance tech, here’s what’s ahead