A Local Case Amplifies Opposition To Facial Recognition Technology

A Farmington Hills man was arrested earlier this year after being wrongly identified by the controversial software
robert williams facial recognition technology
Robert Williams photograph courtesy of ACLU Michigan

In July of last year, disgruntled Detroiters packed weekly board of police commissioners meetings, heatedly voicing their concerns about facial recognition software, which police had been using for two years without approval from the board. With a vote finally called, residents pointed to recent studies that found the technology disproportionately misidentified people of color.

At the very same time, the technology was being used on surveillance footage from the Shinola store in Midtown to identify a Black man who had stolen $3,800 in watches — a scan that would eventually bring the controversial technology back to the forefront of Detroit politics.

It wouldn’t be until early this year that Detroit police would approach the man the software had pegged as a match. On Jan. 9, 42-year-old Robert Williams was arrested in his Farmington Hills driveway while his wife and two children looked on in disbelief.

After spending 18 hours in custody at the Detroit Detention Center, Williams was finally taken to an interrogation room, where investigators presented him with the surveillance images — proof, they said, that he was the thief. After repeated assertions that he was not the man pictured, Williams lifted one of the grainy images and held it next to his face. “I hope y’all don’t think all Black people look alike,” he told the officers. According to Williams’ defense attorney, Victoria Burton-Harris, the interrogation didn’t extend much beyond that. Police never even asked for his alibi, she told The Detroit News — though the investigators did let slip to Williams that it was “the computer” that had wrongly singled him out.

Nevertheless, an arraignment was scheduled. In addition to paying a $1,000 bond for his temporary release, Williams would have to hire a lawyer and appear in court before his case ultimately was dismissed by the Wayne County prosecutor’s office for insufficient evidence. Prosecutor Kym Worthy has made no secret of her skepticism about facial recognition technology, declining to prosecute any case that lacks corroborating evidence to supplement matches made by the software.

One of the few pieces of additional evidence offered in Williams’ case was his identification by a private security guard from a photo lineup, despite the guard having observed the perpetrator only via the same footage that was used for facial recognition analysis.

robert williams facial recognition
The wrong man: Robert Williams with his family in the driveway where he was arrested in January. // Photograph courtesy of ACLU Michigan

Williams doesn’t consider the dismissal of his case a true victory. “I don’t even know what it’s worth to not be arrested in front of your children,” he says. Because his case was dismissed without prejudice — meaning the prosecutor is free to file the same charges against him again at any time — Williams worries he could face the same ordeal a second time.

Reversal of this status is just one of the demands made by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan in a complaint it filed with the Detroit board of police commissioners in June. Phil Mayor, senior staff lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, who is representing Williams, says simply dismissing the case is not enough. “In addition to the thousands of dollars he had to spend on a defense attorney to protect himself against baseless charges, he’s had to live with the fact that there is no guarantee this injustice and harassment are over for him,” Mayor says.

Williams’ complaint calls for the dismissal of his case with prejudice, removal of all photographs of him from facial recognition databases, a public apology from the Detroit Police Department, and an end to the department’s use of what Mayor calls “racist” and “inefficient” technology.

Despite frequent assurances by Detroit police Chief James Craig that the software is used simply as an investigative tool and is not, on its own, used to secure a warrant, Mayor says the use of facial recognition — which he calls a “high-tech stop-and-frisk” — will result in more false arrests and a continued waste of public resources. “The idea that they’ll conduct an investigation after facial recognition, where that investigation appears to consist of nothing more than a lineup, is a joke,” he says.

The Detroit City Council was scheduled to vote on whether to renew the police department’s contract with facial recognition software provider DataWorks in June. The decision was delayed, however, when the expectation that its members would vote in favor of renewal drew renewed public outcry.

Mayor hopes his client’s experience will shed further light on what he sees as the dangers of facial recognition: “This is just another tool used to over-police already oppressed and over-surveilled communities.”