Detroit police work to expunge record of man wrongfully accused with facial recognition

Sarah Rahal Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — Investigators are working to expunge the criminal records of a Michigan man who was mistakenly targeted through a facial recognition software after Detroit's mayor and police chief both stated his arrest was inexcusable.

Robert Williams, a Detroit native who lives in Farmington Hills, was mistakenly tagged by the police department's software as a suspected shoplifter at Midtown's Shinola store, where five watches were taken, in 2018.

Williams was arrested in January, without an explanation for his arrest, and held in police custody for 30 hours. He was arraigned on a first-degree theft charge and received a $1,000 bond after informing detectives their vague surveillance footage was not a match. Detectives realized "the computer got it wrong," and released Williams, he said. Charges were dropped by the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office for insufficient evidence.

In addition to working with the prosecutor's office, Detroit police are seeking to remove Williams' DNA profile and mug shot from a state database, a representative told The Detroit News.

Robert Williams and his daughter, Rosie Williams.

The move comes a day after the ACLU of Michigan filed a complaint against Detroit police officials seeking a public apology to Williams' family and that the department abandons the facial recognition software stating it could lead to the wrongful arrest of another African-American man.

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.

Meanwhile, the city's mayor and police chief are speaking out about what led to the arrest, acknowledging it was a mistake.

"What you need to do is make sure you have the right protocols, and since September there are a whole series of protocols in place that this incident would not have been possible," Mayor Mike Duggan said during a weekly press briefing at Detroit Public Safety headquarters. "But it’s unfortunate that it’s happened before Detroit had its own facial recognition, before it had its own policy, and there was really no excuse for Mr. Williams having been arrested."

A loss-prevention officer reviewed the video footage showing a person wearing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. The videos were sent to Detroit Police Crime Intel for a search through facial recognition 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.

The Williams family.

Detroit officers arrested Williams in January while he was on the front lawn of his Farmington Hills home with his wife, mother-in-law and two young daughters, who cried as their father was placed in the police car. He was in custody overnight then arraigned, the ACLU said. 

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office said the case was dismissed because the Shinola security official who was shown the photo line-up was not physically present during the crime.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig said the investigation started while the department was still using Michigan State Police facial recognition software. DPD acquired its own system in 2017; however, policies were put in place in January to mitigate the flaws in the system.

Craig blamed shoddy police work for Williams' arrest, not the system. He said discipline is being discussed for the three investigators involved in the case and personally apologized for the incident.

“It had nothing to do with technology, but certainly had everything to do with poor investigative work,” Chief said Thursday. “But there is a bright light in it, the third investigator assigned to this, he discovered problems. The video wasn’t clear as he felt it should be. He felt more should have been done. He notified the prosecutor's office and they quickly responded.”

During his Thursday press conference, Duggan said the city now has "a very stringent policy in place that has five separate protections that would have prevented this from happening."

The mayor added, "I do not support facial recognition for surveillance. It is not accurate enough for moving images to match to anybody" and that it is solely used as a tool.

The Police Department's two-year $1 million contract for the controversial software is set to expire in July. The Detroit City Council was expected to begin reviewing the 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 concerned that the software could discriminate against people of color.

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

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.

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."

Duggan said advanced technology can be helpful to solving cases — like the Innocence Project, which uses DNA matching — if it's properly used.

"When technology is used properly, by law enforcement officials, it can make sure that the innocent are cleared as well as that the guilty are convicted and what we need to do with facial recognition technology is follow those policies," he said.

On Thursday, the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality said the software should not be used.

“The arrest of Robert Williams is a travesty that shows in bas relief the bankrupt, backwards and inherently racist practice known as facial recognition. In this new era where the world has caught the fire of Black Lives Matter, practices like facial recognition are fast becoming obsolete," the group said in a statement. "The city of Boston has already banned it, and Fortune 500 corporations like IBM, Microsoft and Amazon are refusing to invest further in the technology, and have said they would no longer share their software with police departments.

"Detroit needs to get on board."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_