91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Detroit police commissioners approve facial recognition policy

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

After months of debate and public protest, Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners approved a policy for police use of facial recognition software by an 8-3 vote on Thursday.

The vote came after Detroit Police submitted a revised proposal that addressed some of the concerns that commissioners and activists had with facial recognition.

The policy only allows facial recognition to be used on still images of people suspected of violent crimes or home invasion. It prohibits the use of facial scanning for “surveillance,” through livestreams or on mobile devices, and at what the department calls “First Amendment events” such as protests or other constitutionally-protected activities.

The directive states that police analysts must verify any facial recognition matches the software produces, and get that verification approved by a supervisor. Any facial recognition identification is only a lead for investigators and can never be used as the sole basis for an arrest, the policy states.

The policy also contains penalties for police found to be misusing the technology, deeming it “major misconduct” that would result in termination if verified by an investigation. DPD must also notify the Board of Police Commissioners and city officials of any violations, as well as providing weekly updates on how the software is being used to the board.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig says the policy will protect against potential police abuse of the technology. But he’s frustrated that became the focus of the debate surrounding it.

“We never talk about the violent, predatory suspects who shoot and kill people,” Craig says. “We use the technology constitutionally, effectively, and it aids us in identifying that violent suspect.”

But some civil rights groups and community activists believe the vote sets a dangerous precedent. They call facial recognition a form of “techno-racism” that too often misidentifies people of color, and expands mass surveillance over a majority-black city instead of addressing community needs and the root causes of crime.

Rodd Monts, a campaign coordinator with the ACLU of Michigan, calls the commission’s vote “disappointing.”

“They had an opportunity to do something responsible for their constituents, and they failed to do so,” Monts says. “In the process, they put in jeopardy the civil rights and civil liberties of people who live and work in the city of Detroit.”

The ACLU and other groups had urged the police commission to at least postpone the vote until it receives information it’s requested about how Detroit Police have used facial recognition so far. The department has been using the technology for nearly two years without a formal oversight policy in place.

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.
Related Content