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Duggan gives thumbs-up to police using facial recognition, but not "for surveillance"

John Seung-Hwan Shin
Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan publicly clarified his stance on police use of facial recognition technology Thursday, as his police chief tried to quell some skepticism from members Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners about the controversial technology.

“The Detroit Police Department has not and will not use facial recognition technology for surveillance,” Duggan said in a statement put out on social media. “No one is watching you on any camera in this city with facial recognition software. I will not support the software ever being used in that way.”

But Duggan then went on to say he supports using the controversial software as an investigative tool for police.

“The most painful moments I experience as Mayor are conversations with the families of victims who just want to know when the police are going to make an arrest in the shooting,” Duggan said. “Those conversations are even more painful when the family knows the police have a picture of the offender and still can’t make an ID. Facial recognition software can be very important in bringing peace to those families.”

Duggan urged Detroit police commissioners to “adopt a policy that recognizes where this technology is helpful, but which also strictly prevents facial recognition surveillance and provides strong punishment for any abuse of that policy. It’s my hope we can find common ground on this issue.”

Detroit police have been using facial recognition software to potentially identify suspects for about a year and a half with no formal policy in place to govern its use, Chief James Craig told police commissioners Thursday. The board had been scheduled to vote on such a policy last month, but tabled that vote amidst a public backlash. Detroit Police are currently working on a revised draft of the policy.

Craig tried to reassure commissioners that facial recognition, while used on faces pulled from surveillance footage, is never used to scan streaming surveillance footage that flows into Detroit’sreal-time crime center. He compared it to a police sketch, and said it’s only used on footage where investigators have identified a crime being committed, and even then only as one investigative tool that can never be used as the sole basis for an arrest.

“This technology is never used for surveillance. It will never be used for surveillance,” Craig said. “We have not used it in that matter, and it has always been used on still photographs.”

Craig said that the police have been using facial recognition in accordance with department guidelines, and there are multiple checks and balances in that process. He said he understood public concerns about the threat the technology could pose to civil liberties.

“This is very serious, and one abuse would be one too many. And that’s why there’s so much rigor attached to this identification process,” Craig said.

But some police commissioners are expressing growing reservations about facial recognition after hearing weeks of heated public comment from critics, who say the software is dangerously inaccurate when it comes to identifying people of color. Many also feel it heralds creeping government surveillance of public life, and will contribute to aggressive over-policing in some Detroit neighborhoods.

Commissioner Jim Holley told Craig he trusted him to use the technology appropriately, but worried about giving future police chiefs an open-ended mandate.

“My concern is, what happens after you?” Holley told Craig.

“We’re hopeful that best practices in the police department are institutionalized,” Craig replied.

Other commission members have already said they will not vote to approve a facial recognition use policy.

Commissioner Willie Burton, who was arrested at last week’s police commission meeting for being “out of order” as he tried to bring up the issue (he was released without charges), has been publicly vocal about his opposition to the technology.

And board chair Lisa Carter said Thursday also said she will not support it, even as she chastised Burton for his “dismissive and disrespectful” behavior at last week’s meeting.

"The technology is flawed, and those flaws primarily relate to bias against African-Americans, Latinos, and other people of color," Carter said. "Such a flawed tool has no place in a police department servicing a majority black and brown city like ours — or in any agency concerned about fairness and justice — until those flaws are fixed."

It’s not clear when the commission will vote on the matter. Carter says that when the board receives a revised draft policy from the police department, it will release the draft to the public and put it on the agenda before a formal vote.

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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