ACLU urges Detroit police board to vote no on facial recognition technology

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to approve Detroit Police Directive 307.5 — a proposed policy that would allow cops to continue using facial recognition technology.

As the police board prepares to vote on the controversial issue, officials from the Michigan office of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a press release they were part of "a diverse coalition of local civil rights organizations" that is urging the police board to reject the proposal, or at least postpone the vote a second time.

According to the agenda for Thursday's 3 p.m. meeting at Public Safety Headquarters, a report from the board's secretary is scheduled to discuss 23 recommendations the board has made regarding the software. Public discussion also is scheduled, and then the board is set to vote on the issue.

The Detroit City Council in July 2017 approved a $1 million purchase of the software, and the police department has used it since under standard operating procedures. Detroit police chief James Craig in June asked the board to approve a permanent policy governing use of the technology.

The board was set to vote on the issue 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 adjust the policy, so the vote was removed from the board agenda.

The civilian oversight board, which per the City Charter must approve all police policies, was set to vote on the proposal in June, but tabled the vote to have more discussion about the controversial software.

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

Police board chairwoman Lisa Carter said Wednesday she still isn't sure how she'll vote, but added a recent tour of the police department's Real Time Crime Center opened her eyes about how the software works.

"That tour had an impact on my thoughts about this technology, and I think that with the recommended policy changes, and my tour to see how the tech works, I’m leaning toward approving the policy," Carter said.

Police Commissioner Willie Burton, who has been a vocal opponent of the technology, said he plans to vote no on the proposal, while Commissioner Willie Bell said he would vote to approve the policy.

Burton, who was arrested during a July board meeting after clashing with other board members in previous meetings, said his primary concern is that facial recognition software can misidentify people with darker skin.

"I'll absolutely be voting no tomorrow," Burton said Wednesday. "We cannot afford to misidentify a single person. Detroit, the blackest city in America, should not bring in a system that misidentifies people of color. That's why I call facial recognition techno-racism."

Bell, a 32-year Detroit police veteran, who helped form Concerned Police Officers for Equal Justice in the early 1970s, and served as chairman of the National Black Police Officers Association, disagreed.

"I’m voting yes," he said. "I have witnessed how the process works. My research reflects this is something I can support. I listened to all the people's concerns, but I just think this is a great investigative tool.

"I have confidence in Chief Craig and the board that we will monitor this closely," Bell said. "We have discussed the policy extensively, but a policy is only as good as the people involved, which is why DPD and the board have to do our due diligence to ensure this process works.

"They've been using it for a year-and-a-half, and there have been no complaints," Bell said.

After heavy criticism, Craig revised the original policy draft, removing a provision that would have allowed police to monitor video feeds in real time if officials received a credible threat of terrorism.

That revision didn't placate the ACLU or the other civil rights groups calling for the board to delay the vote.

"While DPD’s revised policy narrows the intended use of the surveillance technology, the coalition opposes its use in any form, as research shows it would disparately impact people of color, will further fray relationships and trust between law enforcement and policed communities, and because the use of facial recognition in any form poses a grave danger to the privacy rights of everyone," an ACLU press release said.

Craig said he is aware that some facial recognition software can falsely identify people with darker skin, and said there are checks and balances in place to prevent that from happening. He has been offering tours of the Real Time Crime Center to show critics how the system works:

A photo taken from video feeds is fed into the software, which searches social media and other databases for a match. Once a match is established, two employees of the Real Time Crime Center and a supervisor must look at the photos and agree they match. Only then is the photo forwarded to an investigator.

Craig said Wednesday that police officials drilled down on how many times facial recognition software was used. "Only about 30% of the time was the photo forwarded to an investigator," he said. "I understand the concerns about misidentification, but the checks and balances we put in place are working."

Rodd Monts, the ACLU of Michigan's Campaign Outreach Coordinator, said in a press release he wants the board to reject the policy proposal, or at least delay the vote.

"“The Detroit Police Department has been using this technology without any oversight for more than two years, and without the public’s knowledge or consent,” Monts said. “We urge the Board to reject the use of this technology, but at the very least, the Board should postpone a vote until a deep analysis can be shared with the public on how this technology has been used, a right to which they are entitled."

The Detroit ACLU also sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the city, "seeking records on how the technology is used, including, among other things, information about the safeguards DPD has put in place to protect against misuse of facial recognition technology, how DPD has used the technology to date, and whether DPD has considered the disparate impact the use of such technology has on communities of color," according to the press release.

Craig said Wednesday: "I invite their FOIA. We've got nothing to hide."

Amid the privacy concerns, a Boston-based group called Fight for the Future issued a press release Wednesday expressing concerns about a Detroit police partnership with Amazon to use video from the company's surveillance system, Ring. Detroit is one of 400 departments nationwide that have entered into such agreements with Amazon, Fight for the Future's Evan Greer said in the release.

"As a part of these partnerships ... Amazon gives police a seamless process for requesting and storing unlimited footage, giving them a literal eye inside residents' homes and the surrounding area," Greer said.

Craig said Wednesday: "We do have a partnership, but it's not true to say we're looking into people's homes without their permission. Under the partnership, we can't access any video unless we get permission from the homeowner."

Fight for the Future is among the coalition of civil rights groups the Michigan ACLU said joined them in calling for the police board to delay Thursday's vote on facial recognition technology.

The other groups include: Detroit Justice Center; James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership; Metro-Detroit Political Action Network; Arab American Civil Rights League; Detroit Community Technology Project; CAIR Michigan; Detroit Hispanic Development Corp.; Michigan United; Progress Michigan; 

We the People; Color of Change; ACCESS; Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion; Detroit FORCE; MOSES; and the Michigan Immigrants’ Rights Center.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN