Residents urge City Council to reject proposed facial recognition contract extension

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Residents and activists are urging City Council to turn down a contract that would extend police use of controversial facial recognition technology, arguing it promotes police brutality.

Detroit's City Council first approved a two-year, $1 million contract for the software in 2017. A request to extend and increase funding for the police department's contract for facial recognition software had been referred to a council subcommittee for review. But Monday, the measure was pulled. 

Councilman Andre L. Spivey

Social justice advocate Tawana Petty told council members during public comment that major corporations and over a dozen cities in other states are considering bans on facial recognition.

"For some reason, the blackest city in America is doubling down," she said.  

Resident Eric Blount called facial recognition "a tool of institutional racism to the highest degree."

"I just don't know how people of color can approve something that discriminates against people of color," he told council. 

Council President Brenda Jones stressed the proposal, which would have extended the contract through Sept. 30, 2022, was never expected to be voted on Tuesday. 

Jones said her office reached out to the police department and then it was determined that discussions over the contract would be postponed while the department takes time to engage with the community. 

The delay comes after a caravan of protesters hit the city's east and northwest side on Monday, passing the homes of several Detroit council members to advocate against facial recognition and Project Green Light surveillance technology in the city. 

The demonstration was coordinated by Tristan Taylor of Detroit Will Breathe, a group that's organized nightly marches downtown following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. 

Taylor said participants drove past the homes of council members Andre Spivey, James Tate and Janee Ayers. The three council members, he said, were selected because they have "shown their ability ... to be critical of the administration" and "attentive to the concerns of the community."

Taylor considers the steps to include the community in facial recognition discussions a win, but said it should have been done on the front end.

"Given the actual history of this program, there should have been extra effort to make sure there was community discussion," he said. 

Police officials last year revised the proposed policy governing use of the software, removing a contentious provision that allowed it to be used to scan faces in real-time if there's a terror threat. The revisions also laid out punishment for officers who abuse the system. 

The policy outlining how Detroit police may use facial recognition technology was adopted last fall after it had been in use by the department for a year-and-a-half.

Police Chief James Craig has said that there was a conversation with Detroit's council when the software was originally purchased and that there was "nothing secret about it."

It wasn't clear Tuesday when the police department intends to meet with the community about the new contract. A public information officer could not be immediately reached. 

Jones said the protests Monday outside council member homes were disruptive to some neighborhood residents who "felt very disrespected" as protesters allegedly honked their car horns continuously and blocked some driveways. 

Ayers said she supports the public's right to peacefully protest. But said it's one thing to march outside the mayor's mansion, which is city property. Her home, she noted, is private property and "I took offense to it."

Spivey said 33 cars drove by his home as he and a relative and a staff member stood outside. The majority, he said, had out-of-state plates and few were African-American. 

"This stuff has never fazed me. I asked for the job, I asked to be a public servant," he said. "What pains me was the disturbance to my neighborhood and the waste of Detroit Police Department resources to be in my neighborhood when they could be somewhere else."

Spivey said he's grown "numb" to the number of black men getting killed. He said he's worried about his 18-year-old son's safety as he heads off to Atlanta for school in the fall. 

"I pray that protesters try not to make Detroit like other cities," he said. "That's not our narrative."

Taylor said the Monday demonstrators were Detroiters and that there "wasn't any ill intent."

"The slogan of 'no justice, no peace,' that's a real thing," Taylor said. "It's very unfortunate that we are put in a situation where we have to take extreme measures in order to actually be heard."