After meeting flap, Detroit police board may hire security

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The chairwoman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners announced Thursday she will look into hiring a sergeant at arms, a week after a raucous meeting in which a police commissioner was arrested and taken to jail.

Chairperson Lisa Carter leads a Detroit Board of Commissioners meeting at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters in Detroit, Thursday.

Board chair Lisa Carter added she wants the board to undergo training on parliamentary procedure, following the arrest of Commissioner Willie Burton at the July 11 meeting.

Burton has been a vocal critic of police use of facial recognition technology, which the board has discussed at recent meetings. The department has used the technology for more than a year, although per the City Charter, the board must approve a permanent policy governing its use.

No date has been set for the vote, as police officials continue to tweak the proposed policy.

During the July 11 board meeting, Carter asked police to remove Burton from the room after he fired questions at her about the technology, and how she'd chair the board during her second term. Carter had warned him he was out of order several times before the arrest.

Carter later told The Detroit News she didn't want Burton arrested, but asked that he be removed from the meeting because he was being disruptive.

On Thursday, commissioner William Davis warned Burton's arrest could lead to an "uprising" from upset police officers.

"Since that incident at the last meeting, 16 officers have approached me," Davis said. "Twelve were black; four were white. Every single black officer I spoke with said they would not carry out that order (to arrest Burton) ... I think we have the making of an uprising in the department."

Carter replied: "I think the board needs to hire a sergeant at arms, so the police are not involved in these things."

Police chief James Craig said he agreed. "We should not be involved," he said. "I think the police department was put in a bad place (at the July 11 meeting). The arrest was a legal arrest; however, I'd personally make a decision to do it differently.

Detroit Police Commissioner Willie Burton, center, walks into a Detroit Board of Commissioners meeting Thursday at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters in Detroit.  Accompanying him are attorney Robert Ficano, left, and spokesman Sam Riddle.

"This is not a criticism of any decision that was made," Craig said. "But I think if someone is to be removed (from a meeting), there should be a vote (by the board). That was not done, and that put the officers in a difficult place."

About 50 minutes into the meeting, Burton excused himself. "I'm not feeling well," he said before leaving the room.

Carter opened Thursday's meeting by reading a statement explaining she does not support the police department's use of facial recognition technology. Carter provided The News an advance copy of her remarks, in which she said she shared Burton's concerns about the software, but disagreed with how he conducted himself.

Carter also apologized for the fracas. "The conduct last week was embarrassing," she said. "Last week should be a teachable moment for our board."

"Moving forward, I'll make a recommendation that our board receive more training on parliamentary procedure," she said.

When Carter announced she didn't plan to vote for the facial recognition policy, there was a smattering of applause from the standing-room-only audience.

"The technology is flawed in my view, 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."

Carter added she would be open to changing her mind. "With some changes to the policy, it may help with my view of the facial recognition technology," she said.

Since the department began using the technology, there have been about 500 facial searches by crime technicians, who forwarded only 30 percent of those results to detectives, Craig said.

"That speaks to the rigor we use to make sure we're using this technology the right way," he said. "Not every picture that's a hit gets forwarded to detectives."

He said of the some 150 photos that were sent for further investigation, "there was not one misidentification." 

During a demonstration of the facial recognition software earlier Thursday, Craig explained if a photo of a suspect results in a match, an FBI-trained technician must review the photo. A second technician must concur; and then a supervisor looks at the picture.

If all three agree, the photo is then sent to detectives.

"Even then, that's not enough to arrest someone," Craig said. "There has be be other evidence in addition to the facial recognition match. We have made this a very rigorous process to ensure we don't misidentify anyone."

Craig invited the board to the Real Time Crime Center for a demonstration of how the facial recognition technology works. Davis said he already looked at the software and found it "enlightening."

The chief added he wanted to allow "a substantial number of community members" to review the software and stressed that the software will never be used for surveillance.

More than 20 people filled out cards to speak at the meeting.

Eric Blount, who regularly speaks at board meetings, said to Craig: "There's a lack of trust with you. (Facial recognition technology) was used for a year before anyone knew about it."

Another regular at meetings, Bernice Smith, criticized recent meeting attendees who she said "have been acting like heathens." That prompted other attendees to jeer at her.

Also, Thursday, Mayor Mike Duggan issued a statement on the city's website titled: "I oppose use of facial recognition technology for surveillance."

"The Detroit Police Department does not and will not use facial recognition technology to track or follow people in the City of Detroit.  Period.  Detroiters should not ever have to worry that the camera they see at a gas station or a street corner is trying to find them or track them," Duggan said. 

He also said: "I have spoken to several members of the Detroit Police Commission and have encouraged them to continue this practice by formally adopting a “no surveillance” policy for facial recognition technology and providing for serious discipline for any DPD employee who violates this policy." 

Police Commissioner Willie Burton, right,  speaks to the media before a Detroit Board of Commissioners Thursday.  Accompanying him are attorney Robert Ficano, left, and spokesman Sam Riddle.

Prior to Thursday's meeting, Burton held a press conference outside Public Safety Headquarters, saying: "When you silence me, you're silencing the district and the people I work for."

"I hope something like this doesn't happen again," Burton said. "Next time, it could be you."

Burton was joined by his attorney, former Wayne County Sheriff and County Executive Robert Ficano, and Sam Riddle, political director of the Detroit National Action Network chapter and a radio show host. 

When asked if he was planning a lawsuit, Ficano said it's "premature" to discuss that.

"He's dealing with some physical issues," Ficano said of his client. "I think he wants to see how all that plays out first."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN