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Farmington Hills man sues Detroit police after being wrongly IDed by facial recognition technology

Courtesy of Michigan American Civil Liberties Union

A Black Farmington Hills resident has sued the City of Detroit, its police chief, and a city detective for wrongful arrest and wrongful imprisonment. 

Robert Williams was arrested in his own driveway in front of his wife and daughters. He was held in an overcrowded cell for 30 hours.

The federal lawsuit says Williams' arrest for shoplifting was based on a flawed match made by a facial recognition algorithm with no other corroborating evidence.

The incorrect match was between an outdated driver's license photo of Williams and a grainy, poorly lit store surveillance video that never provided a clear image of the alleged shoplifter's face. 

"The technology is racially biased. It is dangerous. It is flawed," said Deborah Won, a student attorney who is part Williams' legal team. "The Detroit Police Department chose to irreponsibly rely on it, and they should be held accountable."

The complaint cites studies showing that facial recognition algorithms misidentify Black people at far higher rates than white people.

"We just want to ensure that what happened to Mr. Williams does not happen to anyone else ever again," said Won. "We want the Detroit Police Department to stop using a technology that it knows is racially biased."

Won said the technology also is prone to human error and can lead to wrongful arrests of innocent people, like Williams.

The lawsuit is seeking an end to Detroit's use "of facial recognition technology as an investigative technique so long as it misidentifies individuals at materially different rates depending on race, ethnicity, or skin tone."

Wayne county prosecutor Kym Worthy dropped the case against Williams.

Detroit city attorney Lawrence Garcia said in a written statement that there was police misconduct in Williams' case, and he is seeking a fair settlement of the lawsuit.

Garcia also said that "new protocols are in place to prevent similar events." Williams' attorneys said the new protocols provide insufficient protection.  

Williams is represented by the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative of the University of Michigan Law School and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.  

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Virginia Gordan has been a part-time reporter at Michigan Radio since fall 2013. She has a general beat covering news topics from across the state.
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