Detroit council OKs controversial contract for facial recognition software

Detroit — The City Council approved a contract that will upgrade controversial facial recognition software used by police to fight crime in the nation's most violent city despite calls to ban the technology opponents argue is "racist."

The measure — to cover costs associated with upgrades and maintenance — was approved Tuesday by a 6-3 vote following a protest, lengthy discussion among council members and an hour of public comment from residents and activists.

The nearly $200,000 contract with South Carolina-based DataWorks Plus will fund software maintenance and support for the city's facial recognition equipment. The contract would run Oct. 1, 2020, through Sept. 30, 2022.

Councilman Gabe Leland, who supported the contract, acknowledged it's a "delicate balancing act" between "empowering DPD with more tools, empowering victims and also protecting the general public."

The council initially delayed action on the matter in June, citing a need for Detroit police to engage the community about its use of the crime-fighting technology. 

Council President Brenda Jones, Pro Tem Mary Sheffield and member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez voted no on Tuesday. 

Castaneda-Lopez said she couldn't support the software that she contends has “implicit bias." In using it, she said, "we compromise people being discriminated against ... for the sake of efficiency."

“It has proven in multiple studies to have a racial bias and that is one of the fundamental flaws,” she said. “I don’t support the administration saying 'if this contract doesn’t go through … we’re going to do it anyways.' That’s a really flawed approach to have and dangerous.”

Added Jones: “I cannot support with my head and feel good with my heart the equipment that we have and that we are using today."

Councilman James Tate said besides those against the contract, other residents in Detroit are victims of crime and do not feel safe. 

"They also state they would want any and all tools available to ensure that justice is brought about," he said.

But Tate, who ultimately voted in favor of the contract, also pointed to statistics provided by Police Chief James Craig that the technology on its own misidentifies individuals 96% of the time.

"How has the software helped with the humans who are actually filling in the missing pieces out of that 96%?" Tate said.

The Detroit police administration said the software is a tool to speed up investigations and its face-matching capability is paired with a digital book of mug shots. Once a potential hit is identified, it's then up to detectives to investigate further.

"The efficiency that we gain from using facial recognition is tremendous," Detroit Deputy Chief Marlon Wilson told the council. "A lot of these cases would just be a whodunit."

Detroit Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. said "nothing is 100%" and, in seeking answers from police department officials during the session, noted it's a priority to protect the seniors and young children who fall victim to crime.

"People who are just living their daily lives and who are attacked, we want to make sure their constitutional rights and their privileges are just as much protected as well," he said. 

Detroit Police Capt. Aric Tosqui said Tuesday the technology has been used 106 times this calendar year and made 64 matches. It assisted in 12 arrests.

A December 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 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.

In one high-profile case, Robert Williams, who is Black, said he was mistakenly tagged by facial recognition as a suspected shoplifter in Detroit in 2018. 

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners seeking a public apology from police, permanent dismissal Williams' case and removal of Williams' information from criminal databases.

City police revised the policy governing use of the software last year, 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 rules were adopted last fall after it had been in use by the department for a year-and-a-half.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, took to Twitter on Tuesday to reiterate her disapproval of facial recognition and expressed her disappointment with the council's vote. 

"Facial recognition technology is racist," she tweeted. "I cannot believe that some of the leaders of a majority Black city, Detroit, want to continue to use a racist facial recognition technology."

In tandem with Tuesday's meeting, members of the Detroit Will Breathe coalition led a 10-car caravan protest over facial recognition through the city's East English Village neighborhood.

Organizers drove past Councilman Andre Spivey’s home in the neighborhood chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “F--- facial recognition,” and claiming Spivey has been critical of opponents of the software. 

Spivey, during Tuesday's session, noted the caravan circled his home and he's supportive of their right to protest. But news reports of statements he allegedly made about opponents of the technology are untrue, he said. 

"Whoever put that language out there, it was an error," Spivey said. 

Organizer Jae Bass said the group, which assembled to march against police brutality in the wake of the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, won't only hit the streets for the Black Lives Matter movement. It also will take protests mobile where they matter most, he said. 

“Facial recognition is racial profiling,” said Bass, 25.

Escorted by Detroit police, the caravan circled the blocks of Yorkshire and Kensington honking for a half hour. They were met with support by residents who opened doors and exited their homes with fists raised. 

Jordan Weber, another organizer, held the megaphone out of the sunroof of her Jeep to chant against the software. 

“It’s racist, inaccurate and causes black and brown bodies harm and trauma they don’t need,” said Weber, 26. “There are other ways of keeping our communities safe."

Detroit's City Council first approved a two-year, $1 million contract for facial recognition software in 2017. The city's use of the technology and Project Green Light surveillance cameras have been contentious. 

Supporters of Detroit Will Breathe also drove past the homes of council members James Tate and Janee Ayers this summer ahead of the council's anticipated June vote that ultimately stalled.

Tosqui told council members during a subcommittee meeting last week that the department convened multiple community engagement sessions on facial recognition prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and has continued hosting them via Zoom in recent months. 

The department, he added, owns the software in perpetuity and is continuing to use it to help solve crimes. But police needed the council's approval on the contract to ensure it's properly updated and maintained. 

The police department said there's a "strict policy" for the technology to only be used in connection with the most egregious violent crimes and home invasions. 

But Gabriela Alcazar, a resident of southwest Detroit, said it's a failure and must end. 

“Detroit Police Department changing its policy to only use facial recognition for violent crimes does not solve the inherent flaws in the technology,” said Alcazar, adding: “It does nothing to reduce crime.”