Advance Notice: Briefs

Activist group protests facial recognition contract, Detroit City Council approves measure 

By: - September 30, 2020 11:41 am

Detroit Police Department | Ken Coleman

Despite a spirited protest by the anti-police brutality group Detroit Will Breathe (DWB), the Detroit City Council voted 6-3 on Tuesday to support a contract extension to a firm that helps to provide facial recognition technology to the city police department.  

The extension of the two-year, $220,000 contract with DataWorks Plus comes after weeks of push back from DWB and others. The activist group has protested in front of homes of Council members on at least two occasions, including Andre Spivey’s residence on Tuesday prior to the vote. 

“They don’t care about Detroit, that’s what it seems like. We don’t want no facial-recognizing green light,” DWB, which was made up largely of white protesters, chanted over megaphone as a procession of cars cruised along the East English Village neighborhood on the city’s east side. Detroit is 80% Black. 

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The group has demonstrated continually since May 29, following the George Floyd killing at the hands of local police officers in Minneapolis on May 25. Its protests have mainly been carried out in Detroit and the group has called for the resignation of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and city Police Chief James Craig. 

The Council meeting was held via Zoom, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and included public comment. Members Janee Ayers, Scott Benson, Gabe Leland, Roy McCallister, James Tate, and Spivey supported the measure. Council President Brenda Jones, Mary Sheffield and Raquel Castaneda-Lopez voted no.

Earlier this year, Robert Williams, an African American, said he was mistakenly tagged by facial recognition software as a suspected shoplifter in Detroit. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan has since filed a complaint with the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, the 11-member body of appointed and elected officials that provides oversight to the police department. 

Facial-recognition systems misidentified people of color more often than white people, according to a 2019 federal study. Women were more likely to be falsely identified than men. Senior citizens and children were more likely to be misidentified than those in other age groups. Middle-aged white men generally benefited from the highest accuracy rates.

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The police department has used facial recognition software since 2017. Board of Police Commissioners Chair Willie Bell, a former city police officer, stated support for the contract through a statement. 

“Facial recognition is part of 21st century policing, just as DNA became part of policing in the last century,” Bell said. “We in Detroit are showing that we can have constitutional, community-focused policing and safer communities with this and other new technology, but those are not our most important tools. The greatest tools are still acting responsibility, working together, and building up each other, our families and our city.”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) tweeted: “Facial recognition technology is racist. I cannot believe that some of the leaders of a majority Black city, Detroit, want to continue to use a racist facial recognition technology.”

In 2019, Tlaib helped to sponsor legislation to ban use of the technology in federal government public housing. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.