Detroit police commission tackles issue of facial recognition again

Alex Nester
The Detroit News

Residents and others at the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners meeting on Thursday continued to question the use of facial recognition technology and proposed rules governing its use. 

Residents asked the board if it would hold more meetings about the use of the technology and give the proposed policies guiding its use more public airing.

FILE - Police officers remove police commissioner Willie Burton from a board meeting where facial recognition software was discussed.

“As a member at large, I need to have a large community of people talking to me about this,” said the Rev. Jim Holley, a commissioner at large. His comments were met by a soft rumble of applause from the crowd. 

“Facial recognition does not work and it has misidentified many people,” said Commissioner Willie Burton. “We cannot afford to misidentify a single person.” 

Burton, said that people of color and the poor would be most harshly affected by facial recognition.

The meeting comes after Detroit police officials revised a proposal governing use of facial recognition software. Officials said they had removed one of the most contentious features, that of the use of technology to scan faces in real time. They also revised the policy establishing punishment for officers who abuse the system, Detroit police Chief James Craig said earlier this month.

But concerns remain, and residents for months have gathered at commission meetings and community gatherings, asking questions about the use of the technology, how it would be used in crime fighting and citing worries about wrong identification of black and brown people. 

"Facial recognition is techno-racism," Burton has said. "Other cities, including Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco are banning it because it misidentifies black and brown people. So why is Detroit — America's blackest city — so dead-set on using this?"

Burton was arrested at a July 11 board meeting after he voiced concern about the software. The Detroit Police Department had been using the technology governed by standing operating procedures, but Craig in June asked the board to approve a permanent policy.

.Craig said facial recognition technology alone would not be used to identify anyone and said an arrest would not be made until two trained staff members checked the technology’s match to prevent error.

He invited the public to tour the department’s Real Time Crime Center, where facial recognition technology is used. When groups take tours, he said, they often change their mind about the program. 

“Everyone who goes there leaves there with a different impression,” Craig said. 

Craig, in an effort to ease Burton's concerns and give him a close-up view, invited him to tour the crime center.

"I may not change your mind, but I will personally give you a tour, and I hope it would create a better understanding (of the technology) for you," he said.

City of Detroit Board of Police Commissioners Annie Holt, Member at Large, William Davis, District 7,
Elizabeth Brooks, Member at Large,
Lisa Carter, Chair of the Board and District 6, Rev. Jim Holley, PhD, Member at Large, Willie E. Burton, District 5,
Darryl D. Brown, District 1,
and Shirley A. Burch, District 3.

Craig said the backlash surrounding the use of facial recognition is similar to the resistance years ago over the use of fingerprint collecting.

"It's the same level of hysteria that we talk about facial recognition today," Craig said. "But now, nobody questions fingerprints."

Under the city charter, the police board must approve a permanent policy governing use of the technology. 

Lisa Carter, chair of the commission, said the panel would  not vote on the rules for facial technology at its Aug. 22 or Sept. 5 meetings. 

The commission will notify the public “well in advance” when the board intends to vote on the rules, she said.