Detroit police board approves facial recognition software

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Following months of controversy, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners approved a policy governing the Police Department's use of facial recognition technology Thursday. 

Detroit police Chief James Craig speaks with reporters after the approval of a policy governing the department's use of facial recognition technology.

During a standing-room only meeting at Public Safety Headquarters, the board voted 8-3 to approve Directive 307.5, outlining how Detroit police may use facial recognition technology, which has been employed by the department for a year-and-a-half.

Commissioners Lisa Carter, Willie Bell, Shirley Burch, Eva Garza Dewaelsche, Evette Griffie, Elizabeth Brooks, Annie Holt and the Rev. Jim Holley voted to approve the policy, while Willie Burton, Darryl Brown and William Davis voted "no."

The vote was greeted by a smattering of groans from the residents who packed the meeting room. 

Afterward, Detroit police Chief James Craig addressed the media in the hallway outside the meeting room, saying he was “excited.”

“This is about the victims,” Craig said. “We took the community’s concerns to heart. I know some have felt we were not transparent during this process, but when we purchased this $1 million software, we had a conversation with City Council … so there was nothing secret about it.”

Burton, who has been among the most vocal critics of the technology, said after the vote: “The fight isn’t over.”

“Today, the vote didn't go our way, but we're still taking the fight to Lansing for state action.”

Two bills that would ban or delay police use of facial recognition technology in Michigan, HB 4810 and SB 342, are pending.

Some citizens voiced their displeasure, including Eric Blount, who said the board members appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan — Holt, Holley, Garza Dewaelsche and Brooks — rubber-stamped the policy. Under the City Charter, four board members are appointed by the mayor, and seven are elected.

“The fix is in,” said Blount, who regularly attends board meetings and has been a vocal critic of the use of facial recognition technology by police. “They do whatever the mayor tells them to do,” he said.

Garza Dewaelsche disputed Blount's characterization.

"We had eight people who voted for this, but only four were appointed," she said. "That's the bottom line."

Griffie denied acting at Duggan's behest. "I haven't talked to the mayor about this," she said.

Joanne Warwick said there wasn’t enough time for residents to peruse the final policy draft, which was uploaded to the board’s website last week. 

“There should have been a 30- to 60-day period to allow the public to discuss this,” she said.

Resident Valerie Glenn admonished the board, saying: “I am extremely disturbed with your vote … you treat the public like we are slaves, and you are the overseers. I’m disappointed with every one of you, other than Mr. Burton and Mr. Brown.”

City Councilman Roy McCalister, a former Detroit police officer, said during Thursday’s meeting he’s planning a “citywide forum” to discuss facial recognition software. The forum is planned for 6 p.m. Oct. 17 at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall at 1359 Abbott in Detroit.

“There are still some issues and concerns,” McCalister said. “So we’re going to have a panel of pros and cons, as well as a question-and-answer session. This issue will be coming before council, so we’ve been working with the chief to make sure we have representation on both sides.”

McCalister in July asked David Whitaker, director of the council's legislative policy division staff, to study facial recognition technology. Whitaker expressed in a Sept. 6 memo his concerns that police could abuse the software, and recommended the council reject the proposal.

Activist Robert Davis said he plans to file a lawsuit next week challenging the board’s vote.

“The Board of Police Commissioners’ vote today … will not stand,” Davis said, adding that he thought the vote violated the Open Meetings Act and the Fourth Amendment. “I am confident that the board’s unlawful actions will be stricken by the courts.”

Carter, the board's chair, said prior to the vote that several revisions to the original policy proposal took concerns into consideration.

The first proposal included a provision that allowed Detroit police to use the system in real time if there was a credible terrorist threat, which has since been removed.

Among the other 23 revisions the board made include stronger penalties for anyone found abusing the system, and a prohibition from sharing photos used in the facial recognition software with private companies.

"I believe the prohibitions contained in the revised directive address the concerns of the citizens," Carter said. "The revised directive gives clear direction and lines of authority to the department as to when the technology can and cannot be used."

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.  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.

Board members Eva Garza Dewaelsche, chairwoman Lisa Carter, Willie Bell and Evette Griffie were among the commissioners who voted to approve a facial recognition policy for the police department

The civilian oversight board, which, according to 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.

One of the primary complaints about the technology is that some systems sometimes can misidentify people with darker skin. Craig said he is aware of that issue and said there are checks and balances in place to prevent wrong identification. Craig 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 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.

After the board's vote Thursday, Craig said: "I know I speak on behalf of every working man and woman in this department that we use the technology to keep the community safe. I thank you for the vote."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN