Detroit chief defends facial recognition technology after Tlaib criticism

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Police Chief James Craig has some advice to U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib: Talk to the families of homicide victims before criticizing facial recognition technology.

Tlaib's spokesman fired back at the chief, saying he was being "disingenuous" by assuming her objection to the technology doesn't take victims' families into account.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig

Tlaib tweeted early Tuesday her opposition to the controversial law enforcement tool, which Detroit police have employed for about a year and a half.

The message was retweeted with a link to an article discussing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' opposition to the technology.

Craig said Tlaib and other critics of the software aren't looking at the whole picture.

"Nobody ever talks about the victims in these cases," Craig said. "I would offer a word of caution to the congresswoman about using that kind of language in referring to technology that gives these grieving family members closure."

In an emailed statement, Tlaib's spokesman Denzel McCampbell said: “It is disingenuous for Chief Craig to imply that Congresswoman Tlaib is not thinking about the victims of crime and their families. Her criticism of facial recognition does not mean that.

"This is about ensuring that all communities are protected," McCampbell said. "Experts and researchers have found facial recognition technology to be deeply flawed with a high rate of misidentification, many residents have conveyed the same concerns to her."

McCampbell added: "Rep. Tlaib has participated in two congressional hearings in the House Oversight & Reform Committee about this technology and has done a lot of research on it. She remains deeply concerned about this controversial surveillance. We certainly will take Chief Craig up on his offer to visit a Real Time Crime Center and she looks forward to it.”

Craig replied: "I look forward to her visit, and will personally give her a tour. But I also urge her to talk to the families of homicide victims. I did talk to them on Saturday — it was a group of about 75-80 relatives of victims — and when I mentioned facial recognition technology, they cheered.

"I'm looking at using this technology on cold cases where there's a good picture," Craig said. "It hasn't been used that way yet, but why not? The bottom line is, if this technology can help get a violent criminal off the streets sooner rather than later, that's what we should be focusing on."

Craig said he was with Tlaib Sunday during a ceremony renaming a Detroit street after legendary boxing manager Emmanuel Stewart. "I find it interesting that she never mentioned her concerns when she was face to face," Craig said.

Although the police department is already using the technology, per the city charter, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners must approve a policy governing its use. The issue has been discussed in recent weeks, although no vote is immediately scheduled.

Recent board meetings have been packed with citizens who say they don't want Detroit police using facial recognition technology. The chief concerns aired are about privacy, and that the software sometimes misidentifies darker-skinned people.

The board was set to vote on the issue at its June 27 meeting, but the issue was tabled until the next meeting.

At the July 11 meeting, officers handcuffed commissioner Willie Burton and took him to jail after he interrupted the proceedings to ask new chairwoman Lisa Carter whether she'd do anything differently during her second term as board chair. No charges were filed.

In response to the ongoing criticism, Craig last month made changes to the proposed facial recognition policy, truncating it from 10 to two pages. The changes include removing a provision that would've allowed police to scan faces in real time if there was a credible terror threat.

In addition, Craig has invited board members and the public into the Real Time Crime Center to see how the technology works. 

Still images from various video cameras are fed into the software, which scans a database to see if there's a possible match. 

Craig said the "rigorous process" eliminates the glitch in the system that more often misidentifies darker-skinned people by requiring two technicians and a supervisor to sign off on a computer match before forwarding the computer's findings to detectives.

Of the some 500 photos that have been fed into the software, only about 30% have been forwarded, Craig said.

Amid the debate, state Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, introduced House Bill 4810, which would prevent police in Michigan from using facial recognition technology for five years. No vote is scheduled.

"I totally understand the concerns about this technology," Craig said. "But we have a rigorous process in place to prevent abuses and misidentification. We will also be completely open with the board about its use.

"I just attended a meeting on Saturday of the family members of homicide victims, and we discussed this technology," Craig said. "That's the part of this discussion that always gets overlooked: The victims.

"We've been able to solve cases that would've been whodunits if not for this technology — and bring closure to these families."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN