Detroit police oversight board approves controversial facial recognition policy
Community groups opposed the policy, saying software identification is unreliable and racially tinged
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT, Mich. — Over the objections of civil rights groups and residents, Detroit's police oversight board approved a new policy Thursday to govern the use of controversial facial recognition software.
Compared with a previous version of the proposed policy, the directive narrows the allowable use of the technology. The police department cannot use facial recognition software on live or recorded video, and it cannot use it to assess a person's immigration status.
Lisa Carter, chairwoman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, acknowledged that concerns about facial recognition's accuracy when used on women and people of color have not been fully resolved. But the directive incorporates more than 20 recommendations from the board, she said.
“I believe the prohibitions contained in the revised directive address many of the concerns raised by the public," Carter said. "The revised directive is not a complete ban on the use of facial recognition. The revised directive gives clear direction and lines of authority to the department as to when and how such technology can and cannot be used."
The board voted on the facial recognition policy early in the meeting, before residents in the audience were given a chance to speak. The vote was 8-3 in favor of approval. Commissioners Darryl Brown, Willie Burton and William Davis voted in opposition.
Burton said before the meeting that Detroit should be the last city to implement facial recognition technology.
"I feel like the technology itself is techno-racism," Burton said. "With this technology, everyone looks alike."
Davis said Detroit should not use facial recognition software at this time. "I think it's unreliable as it relates to black and brown people," he said.
After the vote, police Chief James Craig said, “this is a great day.” He said the technology will continue to be a useful crime-fighting tool. The department was using facial recognition while the policy was under consideration by the board.
“Just like a few nights ago, we had a robbery. It would’ve been a whodunnit, and had it not been for the use of that technology, an armed robbery, we would not have identified that suspect,” Craig said. “We cannot arrest solely on the identification from facial recognition. We can’t do it, and we’re not going to do it.
“This is about supporting victims, family members of victims and identifying violent, predatory criminals,” Craig said, adding that the armed robbery suspect arrested recently has not yet been charged.
The city paid $1 million for its facial recognition software in 2017 and used the technology for about a year and a half before drawing up a policy to govern its use.
Detroit's application of facial recognition software has raised concerns about the city's growing surveillance network and the potential for the technology to infringe on citizen's privacy. Facial recognition's error rates, specifically when used on black and brown individuals, also have drawn criticism.
Facial recognition opponents protested at police commissioners' board meetings over the summer. A commissioner was escorted out of one meeting by police and arrested for disorderly conduct. The charges were ultimately dismissed.
The police department's new directive on facial recognition includes the following provisions:
- The police department cannot apply the facial recognition software to live-streamed or recorded videos; the department can only use the technology on still images.
- The department is prohibited from using facial recognition to assess a person's immigration status or for predictive analysis. Mobile facial recognition also is banned.
- The technology is only to be used for investigations involving first-degree home invasion or "part 1 violent crimes," which are defined as robbery, sexual assault, aggravated assault or homicide.
- Facial recognition cannot be used to surveil the public.
- If facial recognition is used for an investigative lead, the examiner must get corroboration and a written sign-off from at least one other examiner and a supervisor in the crime intelligence unit. Any misuse of the facial recognition software will be investigated and any resulting misconduct would result in dismissal.
The Board of Police Commissioners will receive weekly reports from the crime intelligence unit with the number of facial recognition requests fulfilled, the crimes those requests attempted to solve and the number of leads produced.
Earlier this week, a coalition of local civil rights groups urged the Board of Police Commissioners to reject the facial recognition policy. The groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan and Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Michigan, totally oppose the use of facial recognition because it poses a danger to privacy rights, disparately impacts people of color and diminishes trust between police officers and the communities in which they work.
"At its core, facial recognition is a way to do mass profiling, which is the last thing a majority black city needs," Amanda Alexander, Detroit Justice Center executive director, said in a statement. "Rather than investing millions of dollars in facial recognition technology that instills fear and targets communities of color, we should be investing in services and resources so that people can prosper."
To learn more about how facial recognition has been used in Detroit, the ACLU of Michigan submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the city earlier this week for records that show all of the police department's uses of facial recognition since 2017.
"The reality is they got this equipment and they’ve been using it with no oversight,” said Rodd Monts, campaign outreach coordinator for ACLU of Michigan. "They have an obligation to tell us what they’ve been doing with it. We have a right to know.”
Several members of the public who attended Thursday's hearing criticized the board for approving the policy. Some chastised the commissioners for holding the vote before the public could be heard at the meeting.
Detroit resident Amanda Hill, 28, said she was disturbed by the vote. Hill is part of the Green Light Black Futures organization, which opposes facial recognition and wants to rid the city of Project Green Light cameras at Detroit businesses.
"Facial recognition technology does not keep us safe," Hill said. "Healthy communities require investment — not over-policing, not surveillance."