Detroit City Council renews contract for racially biased facial recognition surveillance software

Sep 29, 2020 at 3:46 pm
click to enlarge Detroit's Real Time Crime Center. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Detroit's Real Time Crime Center.

A divided Detroit City Council approved a contract extension for the city’s facial recognition software on Tuesday over the complaints of residents and legal experts who decried the system as unreliable, racially biased, and constitutionally biased.

The council voted 6 to 3 to renew the contract, which expired in July, for an additional two years.

“I’ve talked to a number of individuals who have been victims of crime and state they want any and all tools” to fight crime, Councilman James Tate, a former Detroit Police Department employee, said before the vote.

Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López said she couldn’t support a technology that is “fundamentally flawed and racially biased.”

“There are other tools and resources that we can use,” Castañeda-López said. “I don’t want to ruin someone’s life because we’re using a flawed technology.”

Council President Brenda Jones and Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield also voted against the extension.

The contract was for technical support, maintenance, upgrades, and licensing. Even if the council rejected the contract extension, the city said it could still have used the technology but wouldn’t be able to perform upgrades.
During the hourlong public comment period, more than 30 people spoke about facial recognition, and all but one were opposed. One of the speakers was Phillip Mayor, a senior staff attorney for the Michigan ACLU who is representing Robert Williams, a Black man who was arrested after police falsely identified him using facial recognition.

“The use of this technology exposes Detroit to ruinous liability, which is not a good use of taxpayer money,” Mayor told the council. “We must not renew and continue to waste resources on this contract.”

Tawana Petty, data justice director for the Detroit Community Technology Project, said Detroit is on the wrong side of history, pointing out that other cities have banned facial recognition technology, including Boston, San Francisco, Oakland, Cambridge, Mass., and Somerville, Mass.

“We have leveraged facial recognition surveillance against Black residents despite the fact that the technology is racially biased and being banned in predominantly white cities,” Petty said.

Detroit has one of the most pervasive facial recognition systems in the country. It's used on a quickly expanding surveillance network of high-definition cameras under Mayor Mike Duggan's Project Green Light, a crime-fighting initiative that began in 2016 at gas stations and fast-food restaurants. Since then, the city has installed more than 500 surveillance cameras at parks, schools, low-income housing complexes, immigration centers, gas stations, churches, abortion clinics, hotels, health centers, apartments, and addiction treatment centers. Now, the city is installing high-definition cameras at roughly 500 intersections at a time when other cities are scaling back because of privacy concerns.

Last year, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners approved a policy to govern the use of facial recognition technology. Under the new policy, facial recognition identification is considered only a lead and cannot be used as the sole basis for an arrest. Police are prohibited from using the technology for immigration enforcement, minor crimes, and identifying people during protests, and police analysts must verify any facial recognition matches the software produces and get it approved by a supervisor.

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