Inside the Detroit Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center in downtown Detroit, where 80 employees are trained to use facial recognition software. (Photo by Bryce Huffman)

In 2019, the Detroit Board of Police commissioners adopted a facial recognition policy to govern the use of a tech that has a tendency to misidentify Black and brown people. Since, Detroiters have continued to speak out against the city’s use of that technology

After news stories about innocent Black men being wrongfully arrested went viral, the policy also came under question. 

Facial recognition algorithms misidentified two men, Robert Williams and Michael Oliver last year, but Mayor Mike Duggan, Police Chief James Craig and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy have pushed back against calls to ban the use of facial recognition.

All three have stood by the department’s existing facial recognition policy, which was adopted in September. They say if the policy had been in place, Williams and Oliver would never have been arrested and that the guidelines protect citizens. 

Here are 10 things Detroiters need to know about facial recognition policy:

1) Facial recognition technology is useful in Identifying investigative leads.

Mayor Duggan, Chief Craig, and Prosecutor Worthy say this technology is useful in generating investigative leads. The only time this technology can be used, according to the policy, is to generate crime leads. 

2) It’s to be used only when investigating a violent crime or home invasion.

The policy is clear that facial recognition should be used only to help identify suspects or provide information for ongoing investigations of homicide, sexual assault, aggrevated assault, robbery and home invasion where the intruder is believed to have a weapon. With this criteria, facial recognition would not have been used in Williams’ or Oliver’s cases. 

3) DPD can’t use facial recognition for immigration enforcement 

Despite worries that facial recognition might be used to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement identify and pursue undocumented immigrants, the policy prohibits that use. 

4) Outside agencies can request facial recognition searches, but they have to agree to DPD’s terms..

Outside agencies like the Michigan State Police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or even the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department would need approval from DPD before using their facial recognition software. Even after being granted permission, those agencies would need to follow the department’s policy to use it. 

5) Violating the policy is deemed major misconduct.

Any misuse of the facial recognition technology can result in being fired from DPD. The department will also internally investigate the use to make sure there was no criminal element to it. In other words, if someone violates the policy, DPD will launch an investigation that could result in termination and possible criminal charges. 

6) Use is limited to still images.

DPD runs only still images through the facial recognition system, even though some of these images are pulled from video cameras. The technology doesn’t match audio or video files to still images, nor does it compare videos to each other. For the software to work, someone must have a still image to run through the search. 

7) DPD can’t use facial recognition to violate someone’s First, Fourth or 14th Amendment rights. 

The policy says that DPD can’t pursue facial recognition searches that target someone specifically because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, political beliefs, national origin, disabilities or social views. Yet, facial recognition technology is known to misidentify Black people, particularly Black women. Arstechnica reported last month that Chief Craig said the software misidentifies the suspect about 96 percent of the time. 

8) A supervisor must be present to sign off on any investigative lead before detectives pursue any suspects generated from facial recognition searches.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Before any DPD detectives can use the facial recognition search as a part of an investigation, a supervisor in the Real Time Crime Unit must first approve of using the search results to help determine leads. 

9) People utilizing facial recognition software shall receive extensive and ongoing training about the software.

The Real Time Crime Unit has more than 80 sworn officers and civilians working there. Everyone who uses the facial recognition software has to be trained, and they will continue to get training as the software is updated and as changes are made to the policy regarding its use. Just know that whoever is doing a facial recognition search on any given day has some experience using the technology. 

10) The unit is to make weekly and annual reports to the Board of Police Commissioners.

The Real Time Crime Unit must report each week on how many facial recognition requests it fulfills, what crimes it is investigating, any software updates, and any policy violations. The unit also compiles this data into an annual report. The policy was created to provide not just rules for using the software, but also a comprehensive idea of oversight. DPD can’t use the technology in secret because the Board of Police Commissioners will get weekly and yearly reports on who is using it, how it is being used and ultimately how effective it is at helping the department solve crimes. 

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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