Metro Detroiter battling 'flawed' facial recognition software

Editor's note: This story is updated to correct Roy McCalister's position on the contract for facial recognition software for the Detroit Police Department. The councilman would vote for renewal.

Detroit — Robert Williams says he was mistakenly tagged by facial recognition software as a suspected shoplifter in Detroit in 2018, a move that dumped him into the criminal justice system that he says was humiliating and frightening.

Williams, who is Black, now wants police to abandon the controversial use of facial recognition to find suspects based on his own experiences with the technology.

Robert Williams

"It was one of the most shocking things that ever had happened to me," Williams said Wednesday after the ACLU filed a complaint with the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners that also seeks a public apology from police, permanent dismissal of the case and removal of Williams’ information from criminal databases.

The case might be the first of its kind and brings to light flaws in the use of the software that many police departments across the nation use or are considering using, civil attorneys say.

Detroit police Chief James Craig said the investigation started while the department was still using Michigan State Police facial recognition software and, when DPD acquired its own system, policies were put in place to mitigate the flaws in the process.

Police records show five watches worth almost $4,000 were missing from the Detroit-based Shinola store in Midtown in October 2018.

A loss-prevention officer reviewed the video footage showing the suspect wearing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. The videos were sent to Detroit Police Crime Intel for a search of facial recognition five months later and a hit came back for Williams, a police report showed.

Detroit detectives showed a six-photo lineup that included Williams to the loss-prevention worker, who identified Williams, according to the report. It took months for police to issue an arrest warrant and several more before they called Williams at work and asked him to come to the police department.

Detroit officers arrested Williams in January while he was on the front lawn of his Farmington Hills home in front of his wife, Melissa, mother-in-law and two young daughters, who cried seeing their father placed in the patrol car.

It was during his interrogation the next day that he realized that he was improperly identified by facial recognition software.

Crime analysts monitor their screens inside the Real-Time Crime Center at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters.

Police "unthinkingly relied on flawed and racist facial recognition technology without taking reasonable measures to verify the information being provided," said ACLU attorney Phil Mayor in the complaint.

"It conducted a shoddy and incomplete investigation, its officers were rude and threatening, and it has completely failed to respond to a FOIA request seeking relevant records."

Williams’ lawyer, Victoria Burton-Harris, said he was "one of the lucky ones."

"He's a big Black man in the blackest community in America, that is over-policed and over-surveilled and that technology is just the latest layer of that," Burton-Harris said. "This is proof positive that they're not only using this technology in a very dangerous way but that they shouldn't be using it at all."

A review of the industry’s leading facial recognition algorithms by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found they were more than 99% accurate when matching high-quality headshots to a database of other frontal poses.

But trying to identify a face from a video feed, especially using the ceiling-mounted cameras commonly found in stores, can cause accuracy rates to plunge. Studies also have shown that face recognition systems don’t perform equally across race, gender and age — working best on white men, with potentially harmful consequences for others.

Scrutiny by protesters has raised the issue in Detroit over whether the Detroit Police Department should continue to use facial recognition technology as a tool for fighting crime.

The police department's two-year agreement for the controversial software is set to expire in July. The City Council was expected to begin reviewing Mayor Mike Duggan's administration's request to extend the contract through fall 2022 and increase funding for it, but the request was pulled last week amid uproar from the public.

Photo showing real-time video streaming from at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters.

Some Detroit leaders say facial recognition and other surveillance technology is a comfort to residents. Craig has defended use of the technology and strict checks and balances that are in place to prevent misuse.

Craig said the department "does not make arrests based solely on facial recognition."

"It’s only an investigative tool," he said Wednesday.

Others, including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, argue it's still flawed and racist.

Concerns about bias and growing scrutiny of policing practices following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis recently led technology giants IBM, Amazon and Microsoft to announce they would stop selling face recognition software to police, at least until Congress can establish guidelines for its use.

Last year, cities including Somerville, Massachusetts, and Oakland, California, voted to prohibit use of the software.

'I hope ya'll don't think all Black people look alike'

It started as a boring Thursday, Williams said. An officer from Detroit's 3rd Precinct casually called saying Williams should turn himself in. The officer didn't disclose information about the Shinola theft. Thinking it was a prank call, Williams said: "If you want me, come get me. I'll be at home. Bring a warrant."

They did. On his way home from work at an auto supply company, officers were waiting for Williams. They let him park his car, then arrested him.

The Williams family.

“As soon as he shut the door, they were right on him,” said Melissa Williams, his wife. “I told (the girls) to wait here while I headed outside, but they obviously didn’t want to because they could tell something was not right. They were already starting to cuff him by the time we got out there."

When Melissa Williams asked where her husband was being taken, officers brusquely told her that she should “Google it,” according to the complaint.

Williams spent 18 hours in a holding cell before he was questioned by police. He still hadn't been told why he was there. In the interrogation room, two detectives had three photos face down on a table.

"A detective turns over a picture of a guy inside Shinola and is like 'That's not you?' I looked and said 'No, that's not me.' He turns another paper over and said, 'I guess this not you either?' I picked that paper up and hold it next to my face and I said, 'This is not me. I hope ya'll don't think all Black people look alike.'

"He said, 'The computer says it's you.' "

Then, the detective said, "So, I guess the computer got it wrong."

Despite that, he was being arraigned on first-degree retail fraud. Bond was set at $1,000, and it was another 12 hours before he was released.

Williams returned home just in time for his 42nd birthday, where his daughters, ages 5 and 2, left him cards.

William Roberts' birthday cards from his daughters.

Burton-Harris said the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office should have found insufficient evidence to charge Williams. 

"It wasn't that the police just arrested him. The prosecutor authorized the felony charge against him ... and then they turned around and said in court they had to dismiss it because they needed to do further investigating."

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office said in a statement that the case was dismissed because the Shinola security official who was shown the six photo line-up was not physically present during the crime. The case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning charges could be brought again.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy said last summer that the police department requested her office adopt the department's facial recognition policy, but she declined, saying it was unreliable to people of color. She apologized to Williams and said the case should have not been issued.

"They are well aware of my stance, and my position remains the same," she said in a statement. "Any case presented to my office that has utilized this technology must be presented to a supervisor and must have corroborative evidence outside of this technology."

Crime analysts monitor their screens inside the Real-Time Crime Center at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters.

Detroit reviews contract renewal

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones has said the police department agreed to pull back its most recent request for an extension for use of the technology, first approved in 2017, and conduct community outreach before seeking approval to extend the contract through Sept. 30, 2022.

DataWorks Plus, the company that provides the facial recognition software, charged Detroit $1 million for a two-year contract in 2017.

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. 

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."

Detroit City Councilman Roy McCalister Jr., who took office after the City Council approved the initial contract for the technology, said he'll vote in favor of its renewal.

McCalister, a former Detroit police officer, said there's a difference between the device itself, which he said can be inaccurate, and the staff in place to certify findings.

"It's not just the system itself that the police are depending on," he said. "They are depending mainly on the human analyst personnel that are also doing continuous research to narrow it down and find the actual person involved."

Detroit police commissioner Willie Bell, who will take over as board chairman July 1, hopes the city will renew the contract.

As a former president of the National Black Police Officers Association who served as a Detroit police officer from 1971 to 2003, Bell has pushed for officers to be more sensitive to the Black community they serve.

"The technology isn’t perfect, but police arrest thousands of people every year, and there are very few mistakes," he said. "That’s the nature of the criminal justice process. There are humans involved, so there are going to be mistakes sometimes."

Bell said he was persuaded after speaking to a hit-and-run victim's family. The first thing they asked is "is there video?" and if so, the family wanted police to use the software to find the driver, he said.

“Facial recognition is like any other law enforcement tool; it’s a good tool if it’s used right,” he said. “Detroit uses it right.”

'First known case, but not the first case'

Burton-Harris said Williams' case is unique, but it's unlikely that he's the first to be wrongly charged based on the software.

"We highly doubt that it's the first time, it's just the first known case," she said. "We routinely ask for evidence of the use of this technology, but nothing is ever turned over to us to show that it was actually used.

"There's nothing to indicate that it is used in a case, and the only reason why we know it was ... is because when my client was in custody, the police officer slipped up and told him that it was."

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Detroit police chief James Craig discuss facial recognition technology during a tour of Detroit's Real Time Crime Center.

For residents in a city where about 85% of residents are Black, the use of facial recognition creates anxiety, said U.S. Rep. Tlaib. Tagging suspects through the use of facial recognition, she said, "hasn't translated to being safer."

After his arrest, Williams dug into information about facial recognition software. Federal studies show facial recognition systems misidentify Asian and Black people up to 100 times more than white people.

According to an ongoing study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, algorithms currently being sold can misidentify some racial groups up to 100 times more than white people.

The Institute scientists studied 189 algorithms from 99 organizations, which power a majority of the facial recognition systems used globally. The scientists said they found “empirical evidence” that characteristics such as age, gender and race impact accuracy when comparing two photos.

"I get angry when I hear companies, politicians and police talk about how this technology isn’t dangerous or flawed," Williams said. "What’s worse is that, before this happened to me, I actually believed them. I thought, what’s so terrible if they’re not invading our privacy and all they’re doing is using this technology to narrow in on a group of suspects?"

Robert Williams and his daughter, Rosie Williams.

In the 30 hours Williams was in custody, officers never asked him for his alibi, his attorney said.

If they had asked, he would have told them he was driving home from work. He had posted a video to his private Instagram account, singing along to 1983’s "We Are One," by Maze and Frankie Beverly.

"I keep thinking about how lucky I was to have spent only one night in jail — as traumatizing as it was," Williams said. 

"Many Black people won’t be so lucky. My family and I don’t want to live with that fear. I don’t want anyone to live with that fear."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

Staff Writer George Hunter contributed.