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Detroit police can no longer make arrests based only on facial recognition results after lawsuit

The change is part of the city's settlement with Robert Williams, who sued after he was wrongfully arrested in 2020 based on incorrect facial recognition results.
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Posted at 6:43 PM, Jul 01, 2024

Facial recognition technology led Detroit police to wrongfully arrest Robert Williams in 2020, and as a result of his subsequent lawsuit, the department will never again repeat that mistake.

As part of a settlement in Williams' lawsuit, which the city of Detroit agreed to Friday, the Detroit Police Department can no longer make arrests based solely on facial recognition results — a change the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Williams, says creates the country's strongest law enforcement policies constraining the use of the technology.

The department will also be prohibited from making arrests based on photo lineups that directly follow a facial recognition search, and from conducting lineups based on leads solely found through facial recognition without reliable evidence. Police will also have to be trained on the technology, including its risks and the fact "that it misidentifies people of color at higher rates," the ACLU said.

Williams was one of three Black people who Detroit police officers wrongfully arrested due to facial recognition technology. He was taken into custody in front of his wife and two kids at his Farmington Hills home after being mistakenly identified as someone who stole watches from a Detroit store.

Related: How is technology helping solve criminal cases?

"The Detroit Police Department's abuses of facial recognition technology completely upended my life," Williams said. "My wife and young daughters had to watch helplessly as I was arrested for a crime I didn't commit and by the time I got home from jail, I had already missed my youngest losing her first tooth and my eldest couldn't even bear to look at my picture." Even now, years later, it still brings the family to tears when they think about it.

Williams said the "scariest part" of the ordeal is that "what happened to me could have happened to anyone," but he said that at least the settlement — which can be enforced by a court for four years — will reduce the likelihood of another person in Detroit experiencing the same fate.

"With this painful chapter of our lives closing, my wife and I will continue raising awareness about the dangers of this technology," Williams said.

As part of the settlement, Detroit police will also be required to audit any cases since 2017 in which facial recognition technology was used to get an arrest warrant, and officers will notify a prosecutor if an arrest was made without independent evidence supporting it.

Related: Carjacking case arrest spurs call for police to end facial recognition

Porcha Woodruff claims she is one of those cases. Last year, she sued Detroit and its police department on claims she was wrongfully arrested for carjacking and robbery while eight months pregnant. She said a victim identified her as a suspect after police used facial recognition technology to include her in a photo lineup. The suit is ongoing.

Detroit Police Chief James White said at the time of the filing that Woodruff's allegations were "very concerning" and that there must have been outside evidence for officers to believe she committed the crime.

Studies have shown facial recognition algorithms don't have universal accuracy, with more errors in subjects who are female, Black and 18 to 30 years old. One testing data point the ACLU cited showed the same facial recognition algorithm produced false-match rates for Black men more than three times the false-match rates for White men.