Nijeer Parks, 33, had two previous convictions for selling drugs and had served six years in prison. But he turned his life around; he had a job and was saving up to marry his fiancée.
Parks learned that police were attempting to locate him about an incident involving candy stolen from a hotel gift shop in Woodbridge on the night of January 26, 2019. Parks had his cousin drive him to the station, thinking he would clear his name in what, to him, was an obvious case of mistaken identity.
“I had no idea what this was about,” said Parks. “I’d never been to Woodbridge before, didn’t even know for sure where it was.”
Instead of a polite interview, Parks was interrogated for hours while officers told him “you know what you did” and showed him photos of a Dodge Challenger damaged during the suspect’s getaway.
Parks requested an attorney; he was then handcuffed to a bench in the hallway and left there for another hour. Concerned for his safety, Parks faked an asthma attack, so he would be transferred to the local ER. Afterward, he was booked into the local jail where he waited 10 days before being released.
At his first hearing, Parks’ attorney requested the court inquire into how the police had identified Parks and what evidence they had against him.
After the suspect fled the hotel, officers sent the suspect’s driver’s license to state agencies that had access to face recognition technology, The New York Times reports. The software claimed to make a “high profile match” based on Parks’ New Jersey state ID.
Learning the only evidence the State had was this obviously false positive “match,” the court demanded more from the State before proceeding. Prosecutors later dropped the charges entirely.
Parks is now suing for civil rights violations relating to excessive force, false imprisonment, and cruel and unusual punishment. The State originally “offered” a plea deal for six years in prison, though Parks could have faced up to 20 years if he took the charges to trial and lost. While his attorney was able to beat the charges without proceeding to trial, the cost of fighting them depleted Parks his entire savings.
Parks was not the first person wrongfully harassed or jailed by police over faulty AI software. Detroit PD made two bogus arrests using the software within a matter of months. Facial recognition programs currently available are known to have a harder time identifying people of color, and Park appears African-American.
This incident is a continuation of police reliance on faulty investigative tools instead of honest detective work. Officers at the scene confronted the suspect, who provided a fake Tennessee driver’s license then fled, first on foot then in a vehicle. The suspect damaged the police cruiser and almost hit an officer with his vehicle while leaving the scene.
A detective sent the photo ID to state agencies, and a Hertz employee in the hotel lobby confirmed the license photo was of the candy shoplifter.
Notably, Parks needed his cousin to drive him to the police station because he doesn’t own a car.
Some cities and states have prohibited the use of facial recognition software, mostly because it is so unreliable. Police departments claim it will only be used to track violent criminals and prevent sexual abuse of children. However, Parks was suspected of shoplifting candy and fleeing police. At least one of the men wrongly arrested by the Detroit PD was suspected of stealing watches.
If there is no real accountability for law enforcement, abuses will continue to happen.
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