Lawsuit: Man suffered 'great harm' after wrongful arrest based on Detroit's facial recognition technology

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Michigan State Police ran the suspect's name through facial recognition software, and that a Detroit Police official who was demoted was dropped from captain to lieutenant.

Detroit — Attorneys representing a Farmington Hills man filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday seeking undisclosed damages from the city, its police chief and a Detroit police detective for "the grave harm caused by the misuse of, and reliance upon, facial recognition technology."

The 75-page suit was filed on behalf of Robert Williams in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by the University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan.

An ACLU press release Tuesday claimed: "Mr. Williams’ experience was the first case of wrongful arrest due to facial recognition technology to come to light in the United States."

Robert Williams and his daughter

The suit says Williams' Fourth Amendment rights were violated and that his arrest violated the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. 

Williams' case attracted national attention when it was first made public last year, and it's served as a rallying cry for critics of facial recognition technology, who point to studies suggesting the software systems return an inordinate number of false hits against Black people. Williams is Black.

The city of Detroit, Police Chief James Craig and Detroit police Detective Donald Bussa are named as defendants in the lawsuit, which blames the police department's facial recognition program for Williams' wrongful shoplifting arrest on Jan. 9, 2020, stemming from an October 2019 theft at a Detroit Shinola store.

“I came home from work and was arrested in my driveway in front of my wife and daughters, who watched in tears, because a computer made an error,” Williams said in a written statement. “This never should have happened, and I want to make sure that this painful experience never happens to anyone else.”

Detroit's Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said in a statement Tuesday: "The arrest took place before the pandemic, and in the time since, the Detroit Police Department has conducted an internal investigation and has sustained misconduct charges relative to several members of the department.

"New protocols are in place to prevent similar events," Garcia said. "The Law Department will seek to achieve resolution of Mr. Williams' claims on terms that are fair to him and the City."

Craig on Tuesday blamed the wrongful arrest on "just bad detective work," adding: "Facial recognition was used, but that's not why the arrest was bad."

The chief said the "sloppy work and lack of management oversight" prompted him to demote the detective's supervisor, a captain, to the rank of lieutenant.

After five watches worth about $4,000 were stolen from the Shinola outlet in the Cass Corridor, a loss-prevention officer reviewed video footage that showed the suspect wearing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. The man did not look into the camera, according to the lawsuit.

Michigan State Police ran Williams' photo was run through facial recognition software, which returned a hit for Williams. Five months later, after the videos were sent to the Detroit Police Crime Intelligence Section, Williams was arrested.

Police handcuffed Williams, the lawsuit says, "without explanation on his front lawn in plain daylight in front of his wife and children, humiliated, and jailed in a dirty, overcrowded cell for approximately 30 hours where he had to sleep on bare concrete — all for no reason other than being someone a computer thought looked like a shoplifter."

In June 2020, the ACLU filed a complaint about the incident on behalf of Williams to the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners. The next day, Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan publicly criticized the arrest, and moved to expunge Williams' record and remove his personal information from the police database.

According to Craig, the investigation began while the department was still using Michigan State Police facial recognition software, and before a more stringent policy was enacted restricting officers' use of the technology.

"If this case had happened now, facial recognition use wouldn't have even been authorized," Craig said.

Facial recognition technology has been roundly criticized, and since 2019, several cities including San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, Minneapolis, and Jackson, Mississippi, have banned its use.

Two bills that would have ban or delayed police use of facial recognition technology in Michigan, House Bill 4810 and Senate Bill 342, were introduced in 2019, but petered out. Last year, Detroit Democrats and the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus proposed a package of bills that would bar police from using facial recognition software. Those bills also fizzled.

Detroit's use of the technology largely flew under the radar immediately after the Detroit City Council in July 2017 approved a $1 million purchase of the software. But in 2019, when Craig moved to adopt a permanent policy after using general orders to govern the software's use, the practice was met with heavy resistance. 

Amid the outcry, the department in July 2019 eliminated a provision in the proposed policy that would have allowed police to use the technology to scan faces in real time during terror threats.

The police board made 23 other revisions to the policy that included stronger penalties for abuses of the system, and a prohibition from sharing photos used in the facial recognition software with private companies.

Following months of protests that included Police Commissioner Willie Burton's arrest during a July 11 board meeting as he was criticizing the technology, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners in September 2019 authorized the policy.

Per the policy, a photo from a crime scene is taken from video feeds and 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.

The policy also bars police from seeking warrants if a facial recognition hit is the only evidence. Craig said the "rigorous" rules mitigate against the system falsely flagging Black people — but that has not allayed critics' concerns.

“We know that facial recognition technology threatens everyone’s privacy by turning everybody into a suspect,” Phil Mayor, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement Tuesday.

“We’ve repeatedly urged the Detroit Police Department to abandon its use of this dangerous technology, but it insists on using it anyhow," Mayor said. "Justice requires that DPD and its officers be held accountable."

Despite the controversy, in September 2020, the Detroit City Council voted 6-3 to approve a nearly $200,000 contract with South Carolina-based DataWorks Plus, which funds software maintenance and equipment support. The contract expires Sept. 30, 2022.

Williams' lawsuit does not specify how much money is being sought, but says: "He seeks damages to compensate him for his unlawful and humiliating arrest and imprisonment, punitive damages against Defendant Bussa for recklessly disregarding his rights." 

The suit also seeks "declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent similar unconstitutional arrests in the future."

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN