Police board chair: I oppose facial recognition software

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Police officers remove police commissioner Willie Burton from a board meeting where facial recognition software was discussed

Detroit — The Board of Police Commissioners chairwoman who directed officers to remove a fellow commissioner from last week's contentious meeting says despite the rancor, she shares her colleague's concern about Detroit police using facial recognition technology, and plans to join him in voting against it.

Police Commissioner Willie Burton was arrested during the July 11 meeting at the Durfee Information Center, after new board chair Lisa Carter warned him several times he was out of order for firing questions at her about facial recognition technology, and whether she would chair the board differently than during her previous term in 2017-18.

Burton was handcuffed and taken to the Detroit Detention Center on Mound. After his release, he told The Detroit News he expected to be issued a citation for misdemeanor disorderly conduct, but police chief James Craig said Tuesday he would not pursue charges.

Burton insists Carter was trying to silence his opposition to the police department's use of facial recognition software. The department has employed the technology for about a year, and the board must vote whether to approve a permanent policy governing its use.

In a written statement Carter provided to The News, which she plans to read at Thursday's 3 p.m. board meeting at Public Safety Headquarters, she said she agrees with Burton about the technology, but didn't like how he conducted himself.

"In the last week, people have confused my commitment to run an orderly, productive meeting as support for facial recognition use by law enforcement," Carter said. "Obviously, the two are not the same.

"In a key way, though, they are related: Our Board cannot have serious, reflective, mature consideration of public safety issues like facial recognition or make respectable decisions about those matters without an orderly process," Carter said. 

The board is not expected to vote Thursday on whether to approve the proposed policy, because Craig said he is still tweaking it. No date has been set for a vote, although Carter said in her statement she will vote against it when the time comes.

"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."

Craig said he realizes people are leery about facial recognition use by cops, adding if the policy is approved he will work with the board to ease members' concerns.

"I understand and appreciate the emotions surrounding this," Craig said. "I also realize how important it is to minimize abuses or misidentification, which is why there is, and will be, strong management-level oversight of this program.

"In addition, if the board requires notifications every time we use this to pursue a potential suspect, I'm happy to do that," Craig said. "I just want to know: How can we make this work?"

If the board votes to reject the proposed policy, police will stop using the software, the chief said.

Detroit police have employed facial recognition technology for more than a year, under standing operating procedures that include barring officers from randomly scanning people's faces. Instead, the software is used only after-the-fact to identify someone captured on video committing a violent crime, Craig said.

Detroit's system has real-time capabilities, but under the proposed policy, it would only be used if there was a credible threat of a terrorist attack, and the chief or his designee would have to approve using that feature, Craig said.

The Detroit City Council in July 2017 approved the $1 million contract to DataWorks Plus of Greenville, South Carolina. The contract expires July 17, 2020.

During a July 24, 2017, session of the council's Public Health and Safety Standing Committee, Councilman Scott Benson, the committee chairman, said he was apprehensive about the technology.

"My biggest concern is, this seems very Orwellian to me," Benson said. "I’m concerned about lines being blurred … from doing law enforcement to spying on your own people."

Trisha Stein, the police department's director of administrative operations, told Benson: "This will only be used for criminal prosecution."

Despite the initial concerns, the council voted unanimously to approve the contract.

City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield recently drafted an ordinance that would require police to regularly report to council how police surveillance technology, including facial recognition software, would be used.

The proposed ordinance also would require a public reporting system and regular meetings to inform citizens how the technology is being used.

Michigan State Police have used facial recognition technology for 18 years, spokesman Lt. Mike Shaw said. He said the software doesn't have the capability to scan faces in real time, and that it's only used after a crime has been committed, to home in on a specific suspect.

The software used by state police only takes facial structure into consideration, and skin color is not a factor, Shaw said. 

Once the software's algorithm generates a match, Shaw said human beings get involved. 

"We don't use the computer as the end-all, save all," Shaw said. "We have employees who are trained by the FBI who look at a gallery of photos, and if they don't believe the match is accurate enough, they won't even forward it to detectives."

Craig insists facial recognition technology is no different than artist's sketches of criminal suspects.

"There are sometimes misidentifications with sketches, but does that mean we should stop putting sketches out to the public when we're looking for a violent suspect? I don't think that's a good idea," he said.

Shaw added: "Can you imagine if we had to go back to the 1950s, with Sgt. Friday sitting in a squad room for hours, digging through a 10-inch thick file of mugshots, trying to find a match? All this technology does is speed up that process."

Detroit's police board was set to vote on the facial recognition proposal at its June 27 meeting, but the issue was tabled until the next meeting on July 11. A few days before that meeting, Craig said he wanted to make adjustments to the policy, so the vote was removed from the board agenda, Carter said.

The dozens of citizens who packed the meeting were not aware the agenda item had been removed, and many, including Detroit activist Scotty Boman, voiced their concerns.

"The fact that (the software) is only to be used in criminal investigations only cites intent, not capability," said Boman, one of a handful of meeting attendees who protested by wearing masks. "It only takes one person to do something wrong."

At one point during the meeting, as a community volunteer was being presented an award, Burton, who has had other public spats with fellow board members in recent months, began firing questions at Carter.

Carter twice told Burton he was out of order, before cautioning: "I'm going warn you again, and then I'm going to ask you to be (removed)."

Burton continued shouting, and assistant police chief David LeValley also warned him: "You've been called out of order, if you continue to be out of order, we'll take action."

Burton didn't stop, and Carter said: "For the third time, you are out of order, and I'm going to ask that Commissioner Burton please be removed from the meeting so that we can have an orderly meeting."

Officers cuffed Burton, while other cops held back media and audience members who rushed to the front of the venue.

Burton was taken to the Detroit Detention Center. He said he was held for about a half-hour before fellow commissioner Darryl Brown paid his $100 bond.

Carter later told The News: "The board did not want (Burton) arrested in the first place; I just asked for him to be removed from the meeting."

In her statement to be read at Thursday's meeting, Carter wrote: "As chair, I do not want our work hampered or devalued with unneeded interruptions, shouting matches, cardboard signs, and other disruptive — and sometimes staged — grandstanding. Democracy needs advocacy and passion, but it does not need a sideshow."

After his arrest, Burton decried the "Gestapo tactics" of police. He later referred questions to his attorney, former Wayne County Executive and Sheriff Bob Ficano, who told The News: "There are other things the board could've done, including cutting off (Burton's) microphone, or asking for a recess. Having him arrested was an overreach."


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN