Jan. 16 2013 12:00 AM

Inconclusive data still pits Lansing police against civil liberties advocates over surveillance cameras after first homicide of the year


Lansing’s first homicide of 2013 in plain view of one of the city’s surveillance cameras has renewed criticism of their effectiveness.

These types of crimes aren’t supposed to happen in front of these cameras, opponents say.

“What they said initially is that these were going to prevent crime. If that was true, why would it still happen in front of the cameras?” asks Walter Brown, a vocal critic of the cameras who’s president of the Knollwood Willow Neighborhood Association on the north side, where the shooting took place.

Yet, despite these concerns, a damning report by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and no evidence to suggest they directly prevent crimes, city officials are committed to keeping cameras in 12 locations across the city as part of its policing efforts. And maybe more, if residents ask for them.

“They are just one tool,” Lansing Police Capt. Mike Yankowski said. “Cameras are an extension of the eyes and ears to the neighborhood.”

In the early-hours homicide on Jan. 1, one man was killed and four others were injured in a shooting outside of Save On Market on West Willow Street. All five of the men are reportedly under the age of 30. A 20-year-old, Delon Martell Miller, was arrested and charged with homicide. Denise Hairston, Miller’s attorney, said he acted in self defense. 

Yankowski said the surveillance footage is “part of that investigation,” but would not comment further.

“Part one” crimes — like forcible rape, robbery, murder, arson and burglary — have only decreased 2.5 percent citywide since the cameras were installed in 2008, according to the Lansing Police Department. But LPD reports that such crimes have decreased over 20 percent within 1,000 feet of 10 of the 12 cameras. One location to see an increase took place within the range of a camera at South Cedar Street and Long Boulevard just south of Interstate 96, according to the LPD.

However, the ACLU is more skeptical of data it has received, calling the results “mixed” and inconclusive.

The ACLU report looked at stats from 2009 and 2010, which showed crime increased within 500 feet of cameras at five of 12 locations. In three other locations, crime may have been down within 500 feet but increased within 1,000 feet. 

The report called the results “mixed.”

Yankowski disagrees.

“The data shows that the cameras were effective in those areas,” Yankowski wrote in an email. “Have crimes been committed in areas where a camera is located, yes. However, I point to the crime stats that show that in most instances crime has decreased in areas where cameras are located.” Yankowski said surveillance data is reviewed on a monthly and yearly basis. 

Hairston said the surveillance cameras are a “good system” and would “deter an individual” who is “second-guessing” himself, though there is the possibility that the cameras would simply displace crime if people know “exactly where the cameras are.”

“If someone’s going to commit a crime, they’re going to commit a crime,” she said.

The ACLU report, “Eyes in the Sky: Lansing Residential Surveillance and its Intrusion on Privacy,” was issued six months ago. It calls the surveillance system intrusive and ineffective and that “no major violent crimes have been solved by the use of cameras.” Moreover, “Police indicate that catching littering, public urination and open alcohol have been amongst the most frequent uses of camera footage.”

Brown and Randy Watkins, a Lansing Community College political science professor, head the Coalition Against Monitoring and Surveillance. Watkins describes the coalition as a “very small group” that is a partnership between the Lansing branch of the ACLU of Michigan and Brown’s Knollwood Willow Neighborhood Association. The coalition wants the city to get rid of the cameras and points to the ACLU report that says cameras are ineffective in other cities.

While police stats may show crime is decreasing around the cameras, Watkins wonders whether it’s simply moving to other places. Yankowski says there’s “no direct evidence to support displacement of crime.” 

Watkins also points to the ACLU report that cites research from Oakland University saying cameras disproportionately monitor African Americans. The coalition believes the money spent on maintaining cameras — about $15,000 annually, according to LPD — could be spent on other police resources. 

Brown has made his case against the cameras before the Lansing City Council since the Willow Street homicide. He said the coalition has asked the ACLU to file a lawsuit against the city due to the cameras’ ineffectiveness and alleged profiling of city residents. “They haven’t done it yet, but they haven’t said they won’t,” he told the Council.

Of 13 people interviewed for this story who live or work near cameras, nine expressed support for them, two were opposed and want them gone, and two expressed mixed feelings or indifference toward them.

Julie Donall, who lives near cameras at East Grand River and New York avenues, has mixed feelings. While they may be helpful in close proximity to Grand River Elementary School near her, her house was broken into a little over a month ago: “I do not like being video taped, but for safety, I support it.”

Mayor Virg Bernero, who supported the installation of surveillance cameras in his first term, has no plans to scale back on the number of them. The administration is considering adding more or relocating some on a case-by-case basis, Chief of Staff Randy Hannan said.

“There’s no point in arguing about statistics. Both sides can point to studies that support their position,” he said. “It comes down to our own appraisal, and our appraisal is that they work just fine.”

(Justin Anderson and Marisol Dorantes contributed reporting to this story.)