Detroit police challenged over face recognition flaws, bias

A Black man who says he was unjustly arrested because facial recognition technology mistakenly identified him as a suspected shoplifter is calling for a public apology from Detroit police. And for the department to abandon its use of the controversial technology.

The complaint by Robert Williams is a rare challenge from someone who not only experienced an erroneous face recognition hit, but was able to discover that it was responsible for his subsequent legal troubles.

The Wednesday complaint filed on Williams’ behalf alleges that his Michigan driver license photo — kept in a statewide image repository — was incorrectly flagged as a likely match to a shoplifting suspect. Investigators had scanned grainy surveillance camera footage of an alleged 2018 theft inside a Shinola watch store in midtown Detroit, police records show.

That led to what Williams describes as a humiliating January arrest in front of his wife and young daughters on their front lawn in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills.

“I can’t really even put it into words,” Williams said in a video announcement describing the daytime arrest that left his daughters weeping. “It was one of the most shocking things that I ever had happen to me.”

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Protesters take a knee on Flatbush Avenue in front of New York City police officers during a solidarity rally for George Floyd, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard, center, joins other demonstrators in Portland, Ore., during a protest against police brutality and racism, sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after being restrained by police in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Protesters break curfew and march, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Demonstrators gather near the Austin Police Department in Austin, Texas, Thursday, June 4, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Houston police chief Art Acevedo talks with members of the community gathered to mourn the death of George Floyd during a march across downtown Houston, Texas on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. – Anti-racism protests have put several US cities under curfew to suppress rioting, following the death of George Floyd while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, USA – JUNE 2: Security forces block the road as protesters gather near Lafayette Park ahead of President Trump’s trip to St. John’s Church in Washington, United States on June 2, 2020. Protests and riots continue in cities across US following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, USA – JUNE 2: Security forces block the road as protesters gather near Lafayette Park ahead of President Trump’s trip to St. John’s Church in Washington, United States on June 2, 2020. Protests and riots continue in cities across US following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, USA – JUNE 01: Protestors are putting their hand up while approaching police officers during a protest demanding justice for George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, in Manhattan, New York City, United States on June 01, 2020. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, USA – JUNE 2: Security forces block the road as protesters gather near Lafayette Park ahead of President Trump’s trip to St. John’s Church in Washington, United States on June 2, 2020. Protests and riots continue in cities across US following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, USA – JUNE 01: Hundreds of protestors march during a protest over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, New York City, United States on June 01, 2020. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, USA – JUNE 01: Police officers arrest protestors right after the curfew time during a protest demanding justice for George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, in Manhattan, New York City, United States on June 01, 2020. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A protester confronts police during a rally in downtown Lexington, Ky., against the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Demonstrators start a fire as they protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A young boy holds a “Justice” sign as he peers outside the window of a car passing protesters marching through downtown for a third night of unrest Sunday May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Gov. Ralph Northam issued a curfew for this evening. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

People kneel in front of the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, Sunday, May 31, 2020, at protests over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd. Floyd was a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Demonstrators pray during a march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

A protest leader chants with demonstrators Sunday, May 31, 2020, after curfew in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Demonstrators march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

A protester tries to talk the police back amid tear gas in downtown Atlanta, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Protests continue across the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Law enforcement officers from Calvert County Maryland Sheriff’s Office standing on the Ellipse, area just south of the White House in Washington, as they watch demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A woman is arrested after being pulled out of a passenger seat for reckless driving as protesters take to the streets in SoHo on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Protestors confront a police officer in his car in Memphis, Tennessee during a protest over the death of George Floyd May 31, 2020. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP)

Protestors throw smoke bombs back at the Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd on May 25. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian via AP)

People break into a smoke shop on Monday, June 1, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Police arrest a man in SoHo on Monday, June 1, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

A white man and a black man clasp hands as police in the background guard the old state capitol in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, June 1, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

Protestors celebrate after eluding authorities and stopping traffic along Interstate 55 in Memphis, Tennessee, Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd on May 25. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP)

A protester holds a tattered American flag as police stand guard over the old state capitol in in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

A protester takes a knee as he tries to talk with police guarding the old state capitol in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

Police in riot gear protect the old state capitol building in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

A protester hugs a police officer who kneeled after protesters attending a rally against the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor chanted “Kneel with us! Kneel with us!” in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

A protester holds a police officer’s hand while praying together during a rally to protest the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

A protester confronts police during a rally in downtown Lexington, Ky., against the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

Police officers tackle a suspect trying to escape in New York, Monday, June 1, 2020. A fourth day of protests against police brutality kept New York City on edge Sunday, as thousands of people marched and many protesters and officers tried to keep the peace after days of unrest that left police cars burned and hundreds of people under arrest. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

People run as police arrive to the scene of a broken into smoke shop in New York, Monday, June 1, 2020. A fourth day of protests against police brutality kept New York City on edge Sunday, as thousands of people marched and many protesters and officers tried to keep the peace after days of unrest that left police cars burned and hundreds of people under arrest. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

A protester runs after placing a construction barrel on top of a gas grenade in downtown Fredericksburg, Va. on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

Motorists are ordered to the ground from their vehicle by police during a protest on South Washington Street, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Motorists are ordered to the ground from their vehicle by police during a protest on South Washington Street, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Arrested protesters are loaded onto a transport bus by police on South Washington Street, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Mounted Midland County sheriff’s deputies head through a crowd outside the Midland Park Mall while trying to disperse protesters during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Midland, Texas, on Sunday, May 31, 2020, following the May 25 death of George Floyd, who was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (Eli Hartman/Odessa American via AP)

A demonstrator holds up a drawing depicting George Floyd in Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Protests were held in U.S. cities over the death of Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

A demonstrator holds a drawing depicting George Floyd in Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Police stop a driver in the SoHo shopping district Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Las Vegas police disperse protesters with gas on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

Las Vegas Police disperse protesters with gas on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

Police officers arrest a protester Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Nikayla Williams rallies on the Las Vegas Strip Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

Protesters rally on the Las Vegas Strip Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

Police officers arrest a protester Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Activists march to the Brooklyn Bridge on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York City to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen).

A young man throws a trash can through the window of an AT&T store Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. 5. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen).

Activists march to the Brooklyn Bridge on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen).

Protesters head away from police in Santa Monica, Calif., Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/ Christian Monterrosa)

Protesters speak to Virginia Commonwealth University police who expressed solidarity with the marchers during a third night of unrest Sunday May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Gov. Ralph Northam issued a curfew for this evening. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Protesters hold hands up and chant “don’t shoot” during a standoff with Savannah police after a peaceful rally, Sunday, May 31, 2020, over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

A man with a face covering walks past a mural depicting George Floyd during a protest over the death of Floyd Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles. Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a police officer. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Members of California National Guard stand guard in Pershing Square, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles. The National Guard is patrolling Los Angeles as the city begins cleaning up after a night of violence by demonstrators that saw clash with officers and torch police vehicles and pillage stores. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Demonstrators march in San Francisco on Sunday, May 31, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Demonstrators rally in San Francisco on Sunday, May 31, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

A Lawrence police officer hands water to protesters in Lawrence, Kan., Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

A woman is helped after being hit with pepper spray after curfew on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

An officer points pepper spray towards people after curfew on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

A demonstrator makes a heart sign while protesting after curfew Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis.Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

A protest leader chants with demonstrators Sunday, May 31, 2020, after curfew in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Authorities move through gas and detain a protester as demonstrators march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Demonstrators march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)




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The 42-year-old automotive worker, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, is demanding a public apology, final dismissal of his case and for Detroit police to scrap its use of facial recognition technology. Several studies have shown current face-recognition systems more likely to err when identifying people with darker skin.

The ACLU complaint said Detroit police “unthinkingly relied on flawed and racist facial recognition technology without taking reasonable measures to verify the information being provided.” It called the resulting investigation “shoddy and incomplete,” the officers involved “rude and threatening,” and said the department has dragged its feet responding to public-information requests for relevant records.

Detroit police and Wayne County prosecutors didn’t immediately return emailed requests for comment Wednesday.

DataWorks Plus, a South Carolina company that provides facial recognition technology to Detroit and the Michigan State Police, also couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Police records show the case began in October 2018 when five expensive watches went missing from the flagship store of Detroit-based luxury watchmaker Shinola. A loss-prevention worker later reviewed the video footage showing the suspect to be a Black man wearing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap.

“Video and stills were sent to Crime Intel for facial recognition,” says a brief police report. “Facial Recognition came back with a hit” — for Williams.

At the top of the facial recognition report, produced by Michigan State Police, was a warning in bold, capitalized letters that the computer’s finding should be treated as an investigative lead, not as probable cause for arrest.

But Detroit detectives then showed a 6-photo lineup that included Williams to the loss-prevention worker, who positively identified Williams, according to the report. It took months for police to issue an arrest warrant and several more before they called Williams at work and asked him to come to the police department. It’s not clear why.

Williams said he thought it was a prank call. But they showed up soon after at his house, took him away in handcuffs and detained him overnight. It was during his interrogation the next day that it became clear to him that he was improperly identified by facial recognition software.

“The investigating officer looked confused, told Mr. Williams that the computer said it was him but then acknowledged that ‘the computer must have gotten it wrong,’” the ACLU complaint says.

Prosecutors later dismissed the case, but without prejudice — meaning they could potentially pursue it again.

The case is likely to fuel a movement in Detroit and around the U.S. protesting police brutality, racial injustice and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Detroit activists have presented reforms to the city’s mayor and police chief that include defunding the police department and ending its use of facial recognition.

Providers of police facial recognition systems often point to research showing they can be accurate when used properly under ideal conditions. A review of the industry’s leading facial recognition algorithms by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found they were more than 99% accurate when matching high-quality head shots to a database of other frontal poses.

But trying to identify a face from a video feed — especially using the ceiling-mounted cameras commonly found in stores — can cause accuracy rates to plunge. Studies have also shown that face recognition systems don’t perform equally across race, gender and age — working best on white men and with potentially harmful consequences for others.

Concerns about bias and growing scrutiny of policing practices following Floyd’s death led tech giants IBM, Amazonand Microsoft to announce earlier this month they would stop selling face recognition software to police, at least until Congress can establish guidelines for its use. Several cities, led by San Francisco last year, have banned use of facial recognition by municipal agencies.

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