Facial recognition has led to unjust arrests. So Detroit is making changes.

In January 2020, Robert Williams spent 30 hours in a Detroit jail because facial recognition technology suggested he was a criminal. The match was wrong and Mr. Williams sued.

On Friday, as part of a legal settlement over his wrongful arrest, Mr. Williams won a commitment from the Detroit Police Department to do better. The city has adopted new rules for police use of facial recognition technology that the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. Williams, says should be the new national standard.

“We hope this moves the needle in the right direction,” Mr Williams said.

Mr Williams was the first known person to be wrongly arrested due to faulty facial recognition. But she wasn't the last. Detroit police have arrested at least two more people following facial recognition searches gone wrong, including a woman who was accused of carjacking when she was eight months pregnant.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are using facial recognition technology to try to identify criminals whose misdeeds are caught on camera. In Michigan, the software matches an unknown face to those in a database of mug shots or driver’s license photos. In other jurisdictions, police use tools like Clearview AI that search photos pulled from social media sites and the public Internet.

One of the most notable new rules adopted in Detroit is that images of people identified through facial recognition technology can no longer be shown to an eyewitness in a photo array unless there is other evidence linking them to the crime.

“The process of 'take a picture, put it in the lineup' will end,” said Phil Mayor, an attorney for the ACLU of Michigan. “This settlement transforms the Detroit Police Department from being the best-documented abusive user of facial recognition technology to a national leader in the use of guardrails.”

Police say facial recognition technology is a powerful tool to help solve crimes, but some cities and states, including San Francisco, Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, have temporarily banned its use due to concerns on privacy and racial prejudice. Stephen Lamoreaux, chief information technology officer at Detroit's criminal intelligence unit, said the police department was “very eager to use technology in a meaningful way for public safety.” Detroit, he said, has “the strongest politics in the nation now.”

Mr. Williams was arrested after a crime in 2018. A man stole five watches from a boutique in downtown Detroit while being caught on surveillance camera. A loss prevention company provided the footage to the Detroit Police Department.

A search of the man’s face against driver’s license photos and mug shots yielded 243 photos, ranked in order of how certain the system was that they were the same person in the surveillance video, according to documents released as part of Mr. Williams’ lawsuit. An old driver’s license photo of Mr. Williams was ninth on the list. The person who conducted the search deemed it the best match and sent a report to a Detroit police detective.

The detective included Mr. Williams’s photo in a “six-pack” — photos of six people in a grid — that he showed to the security contractor who had provided the store’s surveillance video. He agreed that Mr. Williams was the closest person to the man in the store, which led to the arrest warrant. Mr. Williams, who was at his desk at an auto supply company when the watches were stolen, spent the night in jail and was fingerprinted and DNA-tested. He was charged with retail fraud and had to hire a lawyer to defend himself. Prosecutors ultimately dropped the case.

He sued Detroit in 2021, hoping to force a ban on the technology so others wouldn’t suffer his fate. He said he was shocked last year when he learned that Detroit police had charged Porcha Woodruff with carjacking and robbery after a botched facial recognition test. Police arrested Woodruff as she was getting her children ready for school. He also sued the city; the lawsuit is ongoing.

“It's so dangerous,” Williams said, referring to facial recognition technology. “I don't see any positive benefit to it.”

Detroit police are responsible for three of the seven known cases in which facial recognition led to a wrongful arrest. (The others occurred in Louisiana, New Jersey, Maryland and Texas.) But Detroit officials said the new controls would prevent further abuse. And they remain optimistic about the crime-solving potential of the technology, which they now use only in serious crimes, including assault, homicide and home invasions.

James White, Detroit's police chief, blamed the wrongful arrests on “human error.” His officials, he said, relied too much on leads produced by technology. It was their judgment that was faulty, not the machine's.

The new policy, which goes into effect this month, should help. Under the new rules, police can no longer show a person’s face to an eyewitness based solely on facial recognition.

“There has to be some sort of corroborating secondary evidence that is unrelated before there is sufficient justification to go to training,” he said Mr. Lamoreaux of the Detroit Criminal Intelligence Unit. Police would need location information from a person's phone, for example, or DNA evidence, something more than a physical resemblance.

The department is also changing the way it conducts photo lineups. It’s adopting what’s called a double-blind sequence, which is considered a fairer way to identify someone. Instead of presenting a “six-pack” to a witness, an officer, who doesn’t know who the primary suspect is, presents the photos one at a time. And the lineup includes a different photo of the person than the one that came up with the facial recognition system.

The police will also have to reveal whether the face search took place, as well as the quality of the image of the face being searched: how grainy was the surveillance camera? How visible is the suspect's face? – because a poor quality image is less likely to produce reliable results. They will also have to reveal the age of the photo that emerged from the automated system and whether there were other photos of the person in the database that didn't match.

Franklin Hayes, Detroit's deputy police chief, said he was confident the new practices would prevent future misidentifications.

“There are still some things that could be missed, like identical twins,” Hayes said. “We can never say never, but we think this is our best policy yet.”

Arun Ross, a computer science professor at Michigan State University and an expert on facial recognition technology, said Detroit’s policy is a good starting point and that other agencies should follow suit.

“We don’t want to trample on people’s rights and privacy, but we also don’t want crime to be rampant,” Ross said.

Eyewitness identification is a tall order, and police have embraced cameras and facial recognition as more reliable tools than imperfect human memory.

Last year, Chief White told local lawmakers that facial recognition technology had helped “get 16 killers off the streets.” When asked for more information, police department officials did not provide details about those cases.

Instead, to demonstrate the department’s success with the technology, officers played surveillance video of a man spraying gasoline inside a gas station and setting it on fire. They said he was identified with facial recognition technology and arrested that night. He later pleaded guilty.

The Detroit Police Department is one of the few that monitors facial recognition searches, submitting weekly reports on its use to an oversight committee. In recent years, it has averaged more than 100 searches a year, about half of which have yielded potential matches.

The department only tracks how often it gets a lead, not whether the lead works. But as part of his deal with Mr. Williams, who also received $300,000, according to a police spokesperson, he must conduct an audit of his facial recognition searches dating back to when he began using the technology in 2017. If he identifies other cases where people have been arrested with little or no supporting evidence other than a facial match, the department should notify the relevant prosecutor.

Molly Kleinman, director of a technology research center at the University of Michigan, said the new protections look promising, but she remains skeptical.

“Detroit is an incredibly surveilled city. There are cameras everywhere,” he said. “If all this surveillance technology actually did what it says it would, Detroit would be one of the safest cities in the country.”

Willie Burton, a member of the Board of Police Commissioners, a watchdog group that approved the new policies, described them as “a step in the right direction,” though he still opposed the use of facial recognition technology by police.

“The technology is not there yet,” Burton said. “One false arrest is one too many, and having three in Detroit should be a wake-up call to stop it.”

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