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Detroit City Council passes police facial recognition contract

African American man with facial recognition scan
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The Detroit Police Department’s use of facial recognition will continue uninterrupted after a contentious City Council vote.

The board approved a two-year $220,000 maintenance contract with DataWorks Plus - the software developer of the technology. The vote followed a sustained campaign by activists calling to ‘defund the police’ by targeting DPD’s surveillance programs. Tawana Petty spoke out against the contract during council public comment.

“We have leveraged facial recognition surveillance against Black residents despite the fact that the technology is racially biased and being banned in predominately white cities.”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology studied racial bias in facial recognition and found that Black faces were up to 100-times more likely to be mis-identified that white ones. DPD officials say they have policies in place to prevent wrongful arrests, which have happened at least twice in the past.

Members of the Detroit Police Department say the agency now has strict policies to prevent that kind of mis-identification. Assistant Chief David LeValley says Detroit’s facial recognition software only uses mug shots from past arrestees. But he says investigators can send leads to the Michigan State Police.

“And they do have access to a much larger pool of photographs than we do.”

Phillip Mayor is a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. He says his client, Robert Williams, was wrongly arrested by Detroit police after being mis-identified by its facial recognition technology.

“In addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that we’ve already spent on this technology, the use of this technology exposes Detroit to ruinous liability which is not a good use of taxpayer money.”

Councilmember Raquel Castaneda-Lopez voted against the contract, citing the technology’s racial bias and use in a predominately Black city.

“That really is the crux of the issue.”

It still passed. Councilmember James Tate voted for the contract. He says many victims of crime do not feel safe in Detroit.

“They want any and all tools that are possibly available to ensure that justice is brought about.”

Researchers at Georgetown Law estimate Michigan State Police has access to about 45 million facial images, including driver’s license photos. Detroit police say facial recognition has been used 106 times this year and has assisted in making 12 arrests in that time.

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