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Facial Recognition Led to Faulty Arrest of Black Man, ACLU Says

June 24, 2020, 6:17 PM

Detroit police should stop using facial recognition for investigations after the technology led to the improper arrest of a Black man, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a complaint to the city.

Detroit police last year ran a surveillance camera image of an alleged watch shoplifter through a database of driver’s license photos and used facial recognition software to misidentify Robert Williams as the suspect, the ACLU claims. A shop security guard later picked Williams’ license in a photo lineup, leading to his arrest this year, the complaint said.

The improper arrest marks the first known instance of facial recognition leading to such a result in the U.S., according to the ACLU. The organization has advocated against using facial recognition for law enforcement, saying the technology is prone to misidentifying minorities.

The technology has become a flash point amid recent protests over police brutality and racial bias, with Amazon.com Inc., International Business Machines Corp., and Microsoft Corp. pledging to stop or pause the sale of such software to law enforcement.

In the Williams case, “video surveillance captured images of the suspect, who was dressed, among other things, in a St. Louis Cardinals hat,” the ACLU complaint said. “Mr. Williams, a lifelong resident of the Detroit area, owns no such hat, and is not a Cardinals fan. He’s not even a baseball fan. He is, however, Black.”

An officer questioning Williams after he was held in jail overnight said “the computer must have gotten it wrong,” according to the ACLU. Police released him later that day.

A Detroit police spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for a comment.

The complaint asks police to expunge Williams’ mugshot and to remove any photo of him from the facial recognition database. Police also should respond to Williams’ Freedom of Information Act request for records related to the arrest, and change his case dismissal to “with prejudice” from “without prejudice.” Dismissing with prejudice means a plaintiff can’t bring another case based on the same grounds.

The Wednesday complaint also asks police to stop requesting that other agencies use facial recognition.

Lawmakers in Congress and at the local level have also raised concerns with police use of facial recognition, which is banned in San Francisco and some other cities. Boston just became the latest city to ban use of the technology.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com; Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com;

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