Facial recognition controversy: Detroit City Council approves ordinance to increase transparency

Posted at 6:23 PM, May 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-28 18:34:42-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Big Brother is watching in Detroit. Police alone have access to thousands of surveillance cameras. An ordinance passed by Detroit City Council aims to make sure those being watched have a louder say about it.

It is called the Community Input Over Government Surveillance Ordinance.

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“Now no technology can come before council unless there is adequate data and information. Questions must be answered. How is it going to be deployed? How long is the information going to be kept? Are civil liberties protected? So, all of these things have to be checked off before we vote on anything,” said Mary Sheffield, Detroit City Council President Pro Tem.

Sheffield says she started calling for such an ordinance in 2017. A

fter Detroit City Council approved the purchase of facial recognition software, Sheffield felt in the future they should have to do more before such a vote. With the passage of the Community Input Over Government Surveillance Ordinance this week she says that is ensured.

The city is currently facing lawsuits after at least two men were misidentified as criminals by the facial recognition software.

Robert Williams was arrested at his home in Farmington Hills in front of his wife and children. An algorithm in the facial recognition software used by Detroit Police misidentified him as a man caught on camera stealing Shinola watches. It is software that is proven to be less accurate when it comes to people with darker skin.

He spent 30 hours in jail.

“If it happened to me, it can happen to you,” Williams said during an interview with 7 Action News in 2020.

The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Robert Williams in a lawsuit against the city.

“It does give the public insight into what is happening, which is kind of baseline if we are going to prevent the kind of abuses that are inevitable,” said Eric Williams, Managing Attorney at Economic Equity Practice at Detroit Justice Center & Member of the ACLU Lawyers Committee.

Attorney Williams said the ordinance is a step in the right direction, but he wants more done.

“In a city that is over 80% black, to use a technology for law enforcement purposes, that has been shown to misidentify people with darker skins should be criminal,” he said.

Williams says it is naive to think that technology will not be abused by police when you consider history.

“Imagine the 1960 civil rights movement. Imagine how it would have played out had the police had the ability to track every individual who was involved,” Eric Williams said.

“The city has unsuccessfully tried to weaponize the technologies they have against protesters,” said Tristan Taylor, an organizer with Detroit Will Breathe.

Detroit Will Breathe organized many protests against police brutality in the city after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Detroit Will Breathe activists sued the city accusing police of responding to peaceful protests with violence tear gas, rubber bullets, and unlawful arrests.

Police responded by accusing the activists of conspiring with each other to cause civil unrest.

“That was dismissed by a federal judge with prejudice,” said Taylor. “They said they had all this footage And they certainly had a lot of footage, but the problem was the footage wasn’t useful. We had a discovery packet. It was an hour of videotape of a squad car that was just sitting.”

While the video may have helped protesters in this situation, Taylor is concerned by the attempt to use what he says was useless footage, against protesters.

“I am just saying as far our use of technology we do it constitutionally,” said Chief James Craig, Detroit Police Department.

The ordinance does provide an exception to the burden of having public input in “exigent circumstances.” Critics worry that a protest could be considered an “exigent circumstance.”

Sheffield says the ordinance did have compromises but is a step in the right direction. She says city council will be better able to provide oversight to ensure constitutional rights are protected with the ordinance.