DDA Approves More Surveillance Downtown, While Chair Cautions Against ‘Big Brother Culture’

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Dylan Lees for ELi

A surveillance camera operated by the City of East Lansing in downtown.

A proposal for East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority to fund installation of more security cameras downtown led to a broader discussion among the group about privacy, monitoring the downtown area, and what makes a welcoming scene. 

Meeting on Nov. 18 at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Lab — where there were signs up about an ongoing art exhibit about digital tracking and surveillance — the DDA ultimately voted unanimously to approve the cost expenditure for the cameras. 

The cameras will be used by the East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) to review what’s gone on in public areas downtown.

City Manager George Lahanas said, as an example, that these cameras could allow officers to figure out who was holding a gun if someone is shot in that area. The area in question has seen an uptick of violence in the last year.

All told, the proposal the DDA approved will involve six cameras being installed at a cost of up to $40,000, mostly along Albert Avenue.

The original proposal called for only five cameras to be installed at a cost of up to $30,000, but DDA member Jeff Smith moved to have a sixth installed in Bill Sharp Park — at the corner of Albert Avenue and Abbot Road — where there’s a high concentration of bars. 

Dylan Lees for ELi

The scene along Albert Ave. near Sharp Park in downtown East Lansing on Nov. 20, 2021.

The reason the DDA approved Lahanas’s recommendation of allowing for up to $10,000 in additional spending for this camera is because it will require some additional hardware installation to wire it into the current camera network. If it costs more than $40,000 to get the six cameras installed, the matter will come back before the DDA.

The locations of the five cameras originally proposed are shown with red circles on the map below. The one green circle indicates a camera that has already been installed.

Map presented to the DDA by City staff and annotated by ELi to orient the viewer.

Before the proposal was unanimously approved, a handful of DDA members pondered the pros and cons of adding these cameras. 

Having surveillance footage of various parts of the downtown could help the police identify suspects and hopefully get better results investigating crimes there. Following that reasoning, DDA member Greg Ballein pushed for the DDA to keep adding cameras beyond these six, potentially in the alleys between Albert and Grand River Avenue. 

Lahanas generally agreed with Ballein, and said he believes the cameras can also be a deterrent, too. 

Lahanas said the expectation of privacy has shifted in the last couple decades due to the proliferation of smartphone cameras. People in the public right of way don’t really have an expectation to not be filmed or have their picture taken, Lahanas said, but the DDA should consider putting up signage telling people they’re under surveillance by ELPD for transparency and deterrence. 

Dylan Lees for ELi

City Manager George Lahanas at the Nov. 9, 2021, meeting of City Council.

Lahanas also clarified that the cameras would not record audio or be pointed specifically at any private property, because the City could run afoul of privacy laws. They’ll be recording video only of public areas downtown.

DDA Chair Mike Krueger expressed some hesitancy about going too far with surveillance. He cautioned that businesses might be concerned about being surveilled and that patrons of various businesses downtown would be discouraged from coming to downtown East Lansing, altogether. 

Krueger wasn’t opposed to adding these six cameras, specifically, but cautioned the DDA to be thoughtful and careful about future cameras, so as not to foster a “big brother culture.” 

Attending his first DDA meeting since being elected, Mayor Ron Bacon differed from Krueger in that regard, saying “I think they should feel that little pinch of big brother — that’s part of resocialization — and a little discomfort is a positive.”

Dylan Lees for ELi

Mayor Ron Bacon at the Nov. 9, 2021, meeting of City Council.

Smith, who advocated for the addition of the sixth camera in Bill Sharp Park, said an excess of cameras downtown could project an image or create a perception that the area is unsafe. He expressed concern that this could adversely impact downtown businesses.

DDA member Reuben Levinsohn generally agreed with Smith, but said that excessive signage saying things like “area under video surveillance” would be more off-putting than cameras on their own. 

Community and Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins suggested that signage could take a lighter tone, saying something like “smile, you’re on camera.”

Before the DDA discussed cameras and the balances of keeping the downtown secure while not being unwelcoming, they heard a brief presentation from Cummins on Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and placemaking. 

Cummins’ presentation to the DDA included discussion of the tax diversion program that exists in the downtown district in the form of a TIF plan. Under that TIF plan, real estate taxes that would otherwise go to the City’s general fund to pay for things like police officers’ salaries, sewers, and pensions are instead going to the DDA for their use on special projects. In this case, the DDA is using some of that money to fund security cameras.

From the City of East Lansing

Between a special millage tax imposed on downtown properties and the DDA’s dedicated TIF plan (“TIF 2”), the DDA is currently obtaining about a million dollars a year in taxes for its special projects. If this TIF plan did not exist, about $735,000 of that million dollars would be going to other taxing authorities, including the City’s General Fund, the East Lansing Public Library, Lansing Community College, CATA, and Ingham County.

During the portion of his presentation on use of DDA funds for placemaking, Cummins included on a slide a brief passage from The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a 1980 book by William H. Whyte, a 20th century American urbanist and sociologist. Cummins said the quotation was one of his favorites on this topic.

Slide from a staff presentation to the East Lansing Downtown Development Authority on Nov. 18, 2021.

“So-called ‘undesirables’ are not the problem. It is the measures to combat them that is the problem… The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make the place attractive to everyone else,” the passage on the slide read.

Ostensibly about how to address homeless people in urban areas, the line landed awkwardly with the DDA before Cummins, recognizing as much, quipped that it may have sounded problematic in this context, before the discussion moved on.

Disclosure: Mike Krueger owns Crunchy’s which sponsors ELi’s biweekly email newsletter.

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