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Groups urge Detroit police commissioners to reject or postpone vote on facial recognition policy

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

As Detroit Police commissioners are scheduled to vote on a policy governing police use of facial recognition technology this week, the ACLU of Michigan and other civil rights groups are urging them to reject it.

The groups also sent a Freedom of Information Act request for records on how Detroit Police have used facial recognition software. The department has used the software to help identify criminal suspects for nearly two years, without a formal oversight policy.

The ACLU’s Rodd Monts says the groups oppose the use of facial recognition as a whole, because of misidentification and civil rights concerns. But he says at the very least, citizens deserve to know more before police commissioners officially give the go-ahead on facial recognition.

“If they’re going to use the technology, then at least be accountable to use so that we know when you’re using it, what you’re using it for, what you’re doing what you’re collecting, and what the results of that are,” Monts said.

Monts says it’s also an issue of resource allocation and effective crime-fighting. “[Facial recognition] is a very capable investigative tool, but that doesn’t really address the things that result in crime,” Monts said. “Instead of spending millions of dollars on cameras and software, we’d rather see that money invested in our neighborhoods.”

Detroit Police say they only use facial recognition software on still images of suspects in major felony cases, garnered after the fact from surveillance video footage. It says that trained analysts and supervisors are required to verify matches made by the technology, and never relies solely on algorithms to make a match.

Even when a match is made, police say it can only be used as an investigative lead, and never as the sole basis for an arrest. It has also pledged never to use facial recognition for real-time surveillance, although the technology it purchased has the capability to do so.

After months of major public pushback and refining the proposed policy, police commissioners are expected to vote on a final version Thursday.

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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