Speed enforcement cameras further police control
Secret traffic camera atop a large pole. M.O. Stevens, CC3.0

A bill was recently proposed to the Michigan House of Representatives that would allow police to deploy speed enforcement cameras throughout the state. House Bill 5284, introduced by Democrat Sarah Anthony, would allow for cameras that meet the following criteria:

  • Cameras have a speed timing device inside.
  • They are connected to Michigan’s license plate management system.
  • They produce an image of the vehicle clearly showing the license plate, where it was located, and when it was taken.
  • A sign is placed before vehicles are in range of the camera warning of its presence.

The claim is that it would give law enforcement the ability to keep communities safe without increasing the number of police officers on the street. A recent report out of Toronto has shown that, in areas of camera enforcement, drivers have slowed down significantly. With Michigan’s traffic fatalities spiking last year, the highest since 2007, it’s not hard to make the argument for speed cameras.

In fact, much of the data and concern of speeding is coming from school zones—Toronto having placed all their enforcement cameras in “safety zones” near schools. The question of why funding goes toward speed enforcement cameras and not the school itself is an ever-looming one in these cases, but it’s one with a clear answer: Revenue generated from traffic violations was roughly $125 million in the fiscal year of 2019-20.

Indeed, reduced speeds are a good thing. Safer streets and fewer accidents will prevent countless injuries and possible deaths. However, this gets law enforcement closer and closer to the limits of omnipresence.

The police already have limitless intervention into our social lives—notably so in Black and working-class communities; excessive violence used against people of color, women, and trans people; the use of chemical weapons which are banned by the Geneva Convention; and protection of property over people.

With the push for more surveillance comes other “ambiguous” areas of law enforcement such as the use of “covert” enforcement—the implementation of hidden cameras and law enforcement to monitor traffic. One study found that drivers would maintain steady speeds under “covert” surveillance. The use of signage justifies the inherent “unfairness” of surveilling those who didn’t know they were being watched. The gap that this opens up deals directly with, as one resident put it, the police being “visual predators in Detroit.”

Make no mistake, the state’s use of these cameras furthers the ubiquity of surveillance throughout our communities. As Detroit’s Project Green Light continues to grow, so does the surveillance of our so-called “free time”—whether we’re driving or wandering around a city on foot, our time off the clock is as monitored as it would be spent at work.

As Joel Wendland-Liu points out, the use of collecting massive amounts of data tends toward “predictive analytics” which are inherently racist and classist. Citizens of Detroit missed out on having a voice (albeit, a small one) in such law enforcement decisions by voting “no” on Proposal P earlier this month, despite concerns over the expansion of this surveillance. To go back to resident Christopher Wiliams Shah, ultimately this surveillance equipment is “being used to target Black males in Detroit.”

In 2015, the Missouri Supreme Court found such enforcement cameras unconstitutional, because the burden of proof of who was actually operating the vehicle falls onto the defendant in court cases. This is further concerning considering the effect of not having sufficient surveillance would ultimately mean more, higher quality surveillance.

The rhetoric around defunding or abolishing the police is overcome by fear-mongering tactics that have to do with safety only. We’re seeing the same rhetoric employed when it comes to increasing the amount of city surveillance, especially with personal surveillance systems on the rise. What we tend to miss is that the problem isn’t simply the number of police officers but the boundless power that this “eye that sees all” grants to the state and law, not to mention the sale of such surveillance data to other corporations.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.