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Detroit police commissioners postpone vote on facial recognition technology policy

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners opted to postone a vote on police guidelines for using facial recognition technology Thursday.

Detroit already uses facial recognition technology through its Project Green Light program at more than 500 privately-owned locations. The city credits the Green Light program with reducing crime around those locations, though skeptics question whether there’s enough solid data to support the conclusion that Green Light is causing the crime drop, instead of other factors.

Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit Police Chief James Craig want to expand the use of facial recognition technology to a surveillance network of traffic light cameras throughout the city. But Police Commission chairman Willie Bell said Thursday that the commission wouldn't vote on the matter for now.

"It's still under review, so we can't go forward," Bell said. "We're still working with the chief and the mayor on the issue."

The decision came as the board revealed it had just received feedback from Detroit police on 17 recommendations it had made for using the technology. DPD agreed to 15 of the guidelines, but balked at the other two. Commissioners said the two sides need more time to work out the details of the policy.

Earlier in the day Thursday, Craig said there were misunderstandings about how the software would be used. He said it wouldn't regularly be used to scan random faces, and would be used only for en masse facial scanning if there was a "credible" terrorism threat.

"We are not going to do random facial recognition, under no circumstances," Craig said. "Nothing random."

Craig said that outside a potential terrorism situation, the technology would only be used on footage where a crime was identified. And department policy guidelines would restrict its use as "a tool to support an investigation and not the sole reason to make an arrest."

"We're not going to be using streaming videos. Emergency, yes, no emergency, absolutely not," Craig said.

Craig said so far, the department has been using the software according to "standard operating procedure." But if the board rejects the guidelines, DPD would have to scrap the program, Craig said.

Critics say there are still too many questions about the effectiveness and uses of the technology to move ahead right now.

“Now, with the expansion of Green Light, with the goal of getting that into every single traffic light and intersection in the city, you now have a civil rights problem,” said Detroit community activist Tom Choske, who co-hosted a public information session about the planned vote on Wednesday evening.

“If I’m just walking down the street, if I’m just in my car on the way to work or whatever, using a public resource, do I really have to subject myself to that level of invasion of my privacy?”

Choske and other critics say facial recognition is considerably more error-prone when it comes to correctly identifying people of color. They also worry that footage could be shared with other government agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and that it will contribute to over-policing in majority-black communities like Detroit.

“Most people don’t recognize how big a problem this is, because they don’t realize how far ahead of the law the technology has gotten,” said Eric Williams, an attorney with the Detroit Justice Center and the ACLU of Michigan. “This technology will re-enforce every existing bias in our system.”

Proponents of the technology like Craig say the technology can be an important tool for solving crimes, though it’s less clear if they believe it can prevent them. The board’s introductory statement to its own suggested policies for using the technology states: “Compelling studies show the use of this technology does not prevent crime. Furthermore, studies show the likelihood for the potential abuse and misuse of the advanced technologies.”

Updated 6/27/19 at 8:00 p.m.: This story was updated to reflect the fact that the Board of Police Commissioners delayed its planned vote, and to add comments from Chairman Willie Bell and Police Chief James Craig.

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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