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"It didn't make sense at all": Wrongful facial recognition arrest in Detroit leads to landmark settlement

A recent photo of Robert Williams and his wife, Melissa, with their daughters.
Williams Family
A recent photo of Robert Williams and his wife, Melissa, with their daughters.

On Friday, the ACLU of Michigan announced that it’s reached a landmark legal settlement with the Detroit Police Department over the department’s use of facial recognition technology.

It stems from the case of Robert Williams, whose wrongful arrest in 2020 for allegedly stealing watches was one of the first and clearest known cases to highlight the dangers of police misuse of facial recognition. That settlement achieves some of what Williams and the ACLU were hoping for — but not everything.

“They thought this was some type of magic”

At first, all Robert Williams wanted was an apology from the Detroit Police, and for them to change their facial recognition technology policies to ensure what happened to him didn’t happen to anybody else.

But that didn’t go anywhere, he said, so Williams hooked up with the ACLU of Michigan and filed a federal lawsuit. It took more than three years to reach a settlement. Williams now says he’s mostly happy with it, though he didn’t get what he wanted most of all: for the police department to stop using the technology altogether.

Still, Williams is confident that the settlement will bring enough changes and safeguards to make a real difference. They thought this was some type of magic they were using,” he said. “And it didn't make sense at all.”

A quick summary of Williams’ case, and how we arrived at this point:

In January of 2020, Detroit Police arrested Williams at his Farmington Hills home in front of his wife and their young daughters. He was accused of stealing watches from a Shinola store in downtown Detroit two years earlier.

Williams didn’t do it. Detroit police later called their investigative work on the case “shoddy.” The only evidence they produced in the case was a supposed match between one of Williams' old driver’s license photos and grainy surveillance footage of the real thief. That match was made using facial recognition software.

There was no real case against him, so prosecutors eventually dropped the charges. But the incident kickstarted a long legal fight for permanent change to Detroit Police Department policies, as well as a much more personal journey for the Williams family.

Settlement makes Detroit "a national model”

Both Williams and the ACLU remain strongly opposed to police use of facial recognition on principle, but their demand that Detroit police stop using it got no traction. However, both say the settlement they’ve now reached represents best-in-the-nation practices for its use, and makes Detroit into a national model.

Phil Mayor, a senior attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, said facial recognition technology has many flaws. Among them is the fact that “facial recognition wrongfully identifies people of color, and especially Black people, at higher rates.”

But Mayor said it’s not just the technology itself that’s a problem — it’s how Detroit police have been using it. He contends police have treated it like a magic bullet, rather than an investigative lead that’s then corroborated by other evidence.

Williams’ case was the first, but not the only, instance where Detroit Police misuse of facial recognition, coupled with poor investigative practices, led to a wrongful arrest. There are at least three publicly known instances of this happening, including the 2023 arrest of Porcha Woodruff, a 32-year-old, heavily pregnant Black woman who was arrested for allegedly participating in a carjacking. In that case, not only was Woodruff innocent, but the actual perpetrator of the crime had not been visibly pregnant.

Mayor said the way Detroit Police have used facial recognition images in photo line-ups is a particular problem. He said the technology usually comes up with an image that bears at least some resemblance to the real suspect, which often leads to witness misidentification.

“A predictable outcome is that the witness will pick the picture that looks most like the suspect. In essence, what you've done is used a computer to create a rigged lineup,” Mayor said.

Mayor said this settlement will change that–both by setting up multiple layers of safeguards specifying when and how officers can use the technology, and by changing how they conduct line-ups. It also requires rigorous training for officers, and mandates that police and prosecutors inform defense attorneys when facial recognition was used as evidence in a case.

Mayor said the settlement also gives a federal court monitoring and enforcement powers for the next four years. “This settlement ensures that DPD will do what they say they will do,” he said.

Settlement is a relief, but impacts linger

In a statement emailed to Michigan Public on Friday, the Detroit Police Department said its policies on facial recognition technology have changed since officers arrested Williams.

"At the time of Mr. Williams' arrest, Department members were being guided by general policies governing technology, suspect identification, and arrest protocols," the statement said. "Following the incident, the Department created a policy specific to facial recognition that included three independent sign offs before being approved for use in an investigation. The policy also makes it clear that a facial recognition match can only be used as a tip to further an investigation, and that it cannot be used as the basis for someone being named as a suspect in an investigation."

"While the work DPD and the ACLU do may differ, our goals are similar - to ensure policing is done in a fair, equitable, and constitutional manner," the department said.

Ultimately, Williams is satisfied that his family’s traumatic experience has at least brought about some real, concrete change. But he also said it’s sometimes been hard not to ruminate on the what-ifs.

“If I would have been falsely arrested for carjacking or attempted murder or something crazy like that … like, I don't know if I would be having these conversations with people, because I don't know if I would have got out of jail,” he said.

Williams’ biggest hope: That this settlement guarantees nothing like what happened to him ever happens to anyone else again.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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