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Detroit police chief defends new facial recognition policy; protests continue

Sept. 2019: Detroit Police opt for safety over privacy, as facial recognition approved

Detroit’s police chief announced Thursday he’s modifying a video surveillance proposal that sparked loud protests and the arrest of a police commissioner, but the changes aren’t enough to satisfy critics.

Chief James Craig on Thursday proposed a new policy for the use of facial recognition video technology that would prohibit using the software on live streaming surveillance and would also fire officers who misuse the system.

Craig’s new proposal comes after protestors crowded into meetings of an oversight panel, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, over the past several weeks to object. Craig said the changes were made in response to the protests.

“Had I known about this would be the reaction, I would have first drafted a policy, brought it to you then made a request for the city council to grant the funds,” Craig said to the police commission Thursday. 

Related: Detroit battle over video surveillance reaches fever pitch as crime falls

The Detroit Police Department has used the software over the past two years, but has no policy to govern its use.

A coalition of civil rights groups released a statement Thursday urging the commissioners to reject the policy, citing concerns over false identifications,  immigrant profiling and potential privacy violations.

“Facial recognition technology is racially biased and poses a grave threat to privacy,” said Rodd Monts, campaign outreach coordinator for the ACLU of Michigan. 

“It will disproportionately harm immigrants and communities of color, who already bear the brunt of over-policing. A city like ours should be taking the lead in resisting the use of dangerous and racially biased surveillance technology — not advocating for it.

Many opponents, including Police Commissioner Willie Burton, claim the technology is inaccurate when used on people of color. Critics also fear it would violate privacy rights.

Supporters, who have been in the minority at the public meetings over the past two months, say police need the technology to fight the city’s high crime rate.

Craig said he understands concerns about misidentifications, but countered that the facial recognition information is only one lead and would not be the sole information used to arrest or detain someone. 

DPD has had access to the technology through the city’s Project Green Light video surveillance program and the traffic light-mounted cameras that the police can use for general crime-fighting. 

The technology allows the DPD to compare faces to 40 million driver licenses and state identification photos from the Michigan Department of State as well as mugshots on the Michigan State Police database.

The technology has been in place, but there is no policy to govern its use. Several other cities across the nation have banned facial recognition software, including San Francisco. Even as the Detroit police commissioners consider the proposal, bills in the state Legislature have proposed banning the technology and the Detroit City Council is considering a ban as well.

The new proposed policy says that Detroit  police would not use the software for surveillance on any camera or video device nor would it be used on live stream or recorded video footage. That means the department would only apply facial recognition technology to still images during an active investigation of a violent crime. 

The policy also states that any officer who misuses the system would be fired and possibly face criminal charges.

The amendments to the proposal were meant to address concerns that the police would abuse the software and use it to monitor people at random, Craig said.

Craig said, over the past two years, the technology was used about 500 times and about a third of the time a potential facial match was used to further an investigation. 

He said the technology was used in an investigation that led to the arrest of a man charged with killing three people at a LGBTQ party. However Craig said he was not aware of any convictions that occurred with the help of the technology to date. 

Burton, who was arrested last month after loudly interrupting a commission meeting to protest the initial proposed policy, said he also objects to the changes.

The software should be tabled until studies show it accurately identifies people of color, he said.

“The department should’ve come before the Board of Police Commissioners with experts and showed us data,” he said. “How can a department roll out something without notifying the board or getting board approval?  It’s wrong.”

Asked whether the issue was worth his being arrested, Burton said, “It happened to me, it can happen to you. It shouldn’t happen at all.”

The commission’s policy subcommittee will consider the proposal and make a recommendation said Lisa Carter, the commission chair. The full board could vote on the proposal in two weeks, she said. 

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