Robert Williams and his daughter. (Photo courtesy of ACLU)

Detroit residents, civil rights organizations, and local activists have reported several problems with facial recognition technology and mass surveillance used by the city of Detroit amid national conversations about reforming police departments. 

One metro-Detroit man’s story may highlight how facial recognition can be harmful in Black and Brown communities. However, Mayor Mike Duggan, who has been a proponent of using facial recognition to assist in police investigations, and Police Chief James Craig don’t believe the current system is flawed.

Mayor Duggan defended the use of this tech last week, just one day after the story of Robert Williams was widely reported by local, and national news outlets. 

According to a complaint filed by the ACLU, Detroit Police Department detectives arrested Williams after facial recognition software identified him as a possible match of theft from Shinola surveillance footage. The detectives also asked a Shinola employee, who wasn’t present during the theft, to look through six photos and ‘pick the guy he saw on the tape’. The employee picked Williams. 

The complaint was filed against the Detroit Police Department, alleging that in January, Williams was held without being told that DPD was looking for a man who had stolen watches from the Shinola store in Detroit. Williams, a Black man who lives in Farmington Hills, was arrested outside of his home in front of his wife, his mother-in-law, and his two daughters. 

Williams was detained for 18 hours before detectives told him why he had been arrested. 

According to Williams’ attorney, when detectives finally questioned him they held up a picture and asked Williams if he was the man in the photo. Williams said it wasn’t him. The detectives then held up an enhanced copy of the same image and asked again. Williams again said no. One of the detectives then realized there was a mistake. “The computer got it wrong,” the detective said. 

DPD detectives had to retrieve a warrant issued by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office before they could arrest Williams, according to Phil Mayor, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan.

“The Detroit Police Department sought a warrant based solely on the so-called identification by the security guard who had never even seen the thief in person,” Mayor said “A security guard who was presented with six photos that didn’t look particularly alike, and one of them was the guy the police had already decided had done it because the computer told them he did.”

The ACLU of Michigan has been vocal about its disdain of facial recognition technology being used in Detroit for the past few years, but Mayor says that technology was one big problem he saw with how DPD handled Williams’ case. 

“They did everything wrong. The original sin is insisting on using and relying on this technology, which is dangerous when it works and dangerous when it doesn’t work,” he said. “The police know and have known for years that this technology is bad at identifying Black faces, Black women’s faces, young faces, and they chose to use it anyway.”

Police Chief James Craig said that it was “shoddy” police work that led to Williams’ arrest, and for that, he apologized. 

“It had nothing to do with the technology, but it had everything to do with poor investigative work,” Craig said. 

Craig reiterated his claim several times and said that facial recognition is a tool that can assist in investigations. He says it should never be used as the sole reason for an arrest. Unfortunately, Craig says, that’s exactly what happened to Williams. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan also believes the case was handled poorly, but doesn’t blame it on the use of facial recognition software. 

“I’m very angry about that case, and I join prosecutor Worthy in my apologies to Mr. Williams, but you have to look at the case, and the case, in my mind, is about subpar detective work and subpar warrant prosecutor work,” Duggan said. 

Duggan says the prosecutor’s office should have never issued the warrant based on the few facts it had at the time. 

“Interestingly enough, when Mr. Williams was arrested, the detective who had been on [the case] was off that day, he came in and looked at the video. And when he saw the video, he sent an email to the prosecutor saying ‘I think this is the wrong guy, I think we should dismiss this case,’” he said. 

Eventually the case was dismissed “without prejudice,” which means DPD and the prosecutors were reserving the right to “harass Mr. Williams and his family,” according to the ACLU of Michigan. 

Victoria Burton-Harris, Williams’ attorney, said this case had a much happier ending than it could have had. 

“It’s important to note that my client was extremely lucky. My client could have been yet another innocent Black man who lost his life at the hands of police, because as you well know when you look around, police officers do not respond very well to large Black men like my client when they are not compliant, when they are not calm, when they are not submissive,” Burton-Harris said. 

Williams has demanded that DPD take specific steps to ensure he, his family, and the broader community, no longer face unnecessary harm through similar situations. The following includes his demands:

  • The case against Mr. Williams should be dismissed with prejudice, and he should receive a public apology for the trauma to which he and his family have been subjected. 
  • DPD should stop using facial recognition technology as an investigatory tool, and should stop requesting that other agencies do so on its behalf, as the facts of Mr. Williams’ case prove both that the technology is flawed and that DPD investigators are not competent in making use of such technology. 
  • Any photographs of Mr. Williams should be removed from any facial recognition database that DPD relies upon or calls upon other law enforcement agencies to use, and the mugshot taken after his arrest should be expunged from all DPD and state records. 
  • DPD should immediately respond to Mr. Williams’ FOIA request in full.

Williams is not currently pursuing legal action against the city. 

Duggan emphasized that facial recognition technology should never be used as a measure of positively identifying suspects, only to aid in the investigation of a violent crime or home invasion case. But Williams’ case shows how badly the policy can fail if people don’t follow it.  

The investigation that led to Williams’ arrest involved a non-violent property crime, and instead of gathering evidence to support the claim that Williams stole the watches, DPD used the photo to identify the suspect as justification for issuing a warrant.

Duggan says the image search that matched Williams’ picture with the image of the Shinola thief occured in March of 2019. The city’s Board of Police Commissioners didn’t draft a policy around facial recognition and how it should be used until September 2019. The Board of Police Commissioners has not responded to requests for comment.

The ACLU of Michigan and Burton-Harris said it’s unclear why the city continues to use facial recognition technology that has been shown to misidentify Black and Brown faces.

What do you think? Does Williams’ case prove that facial recognition is a slippery slope for Detroit, or is this just one poorly handled case? Give us your thoughts on Twitter @BridgeDet313.

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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