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From Detroit: How Not to Use Facial Recognition in Policing

In January 2020, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams was working at an automotive supply company when he received what he thought was a prank phone call directing him to turn himself into the Detroit P.D. When he arrived home from work, he quickly learned it was not a prank, as he was handcuffed before his wife and two daughters.

He was booked Thursday afternoon, which included a mugshot, fingerprinting, and DNA sampling.

Around noon the next day, during his interrogation, he was shown a blurry photo from a security camera taken at a Shinola store where five timepieces worth $3,800 total were shoplifted in October 2018.

“Is this you?” asked one detective.

The second photo, a close-up of the first, also was on the table. Williams held it up to his face to contrast how much it definitely did not look like him.

“No, this is not me,” said Williams. “You think all Black men look alike?”

Williams turned over another paper on the table, which revealed a photo of the suspect next to a photo from his state driver’s license, and he again pointed out that they were clearly not of the same person.

“I guess the computer got it wrong,” said one of the detectives, seeming chagrined.

Williams was released that night on bond. He appeared in court two weeks later for an arraignment, at which time the prosecutor moved to dismiss the case, though without prejudice.

The prosecutor later explained a witness from the store had not been asked to look at a photo line-up, and Williams might be charged again if the witness positively IDs him.

After the ACLU of Michigan got involved, a more complete picture emerged of why Williams was arrested in the first place.

An investigator at a loss prevention firm hired by Shinola sent a still image from the surveillance camera to a Detroit P.D. representative, who uploaded the photo to the state’s facial recognition software database. The software, operated by DataWork Plus out of South Carolina, ran the image through two algorithms – one by Japanese tech giant NEC and the other by Rank One Computing of Colorado – which compared the suspect’s photo to 49 million others, including the state driver’s license database.

The software would have generated a row of results from each algorithm along with “confidence” scores next to them. Williams’ picture was among the results, and his picture was included in a “6-pack photo lineup” shown to the loss prevention firm’s employee. She positively “identified” him, and this led to his eventual arrest.

Clare Garvie, a lawyer at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, said of facial recognition software, “I strongly suspect this is not the first case to misidentify someone to arrest them for a crime they didn’t commit. This is just the first time we knew about it.”

The National Institute for Standards and Technology has found that facial recognition algorithms work better to ID White men but work less well on women and minorities, likely because of a lack of diversity used to develop the underlying databases.

“On the question of false positives — that is absolutely factual, and it’s well-documented,” said James White, an assistant police chief from Detroit, during a hearing on the use of facial recognition software in policing. “So that concerns me as an African-American male.”

The ACLU filed on behalf of Williams to remove his info from Detroit’s criminal databases, secure a dismissal with prejudice so he won’t be charged again, and to get an apology from the Detroit P.D. The prosecutor, Kym L. Worthy, has since apologized, though she added, “This does not in any way make up for the hours that Mr. Williams spent in jail.”

There is nothing to prevent this from happening again, though the department updated its facial recognition policy in July 2019 so that it is only used to investigate violent crimes. Though a misidentification for a violent crime could have far worse results if police use overwhelming force to arrest a misidentified person.

In the meantime, Williams’ five-year-old daughter has taken to playing “cops and robbers,” accusing her father of stealing things and insists on “locking him up” in the living room. Williams and his wife are considering whether their daughters need therapy to cope with seeing their father arrested for something he clearly didn’t do. 



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