Activist: Detroit police used facial recognition last 2 years but never told public

A 34-year-old man was shot at a gas station on Detroit's east side in November and police say facial identity technology helped them identify the shooter.

They grabbed a clear picture of him from surveillance video and ran it through their facial recognition software and got a hit.  Police say this is something that can help crack cases but the tech is not the end all, be all, in any investigation.

"Using that technology we cannot and will not arrest somebody solely on a facial recognition match," Detroit Police Chief James Craig said.

Craig tried to clear up confusion over the use of facial recognition technology during a board of police commissioners meeting Thursday. The tech has been in play in Detroit since 2017 when the city spent a million dollars on software from Dataworks Plus. 

But DPD is looking to cement its use by nailing down a policy and getting approval from the board on how it will be used. It's unclear why DPD is seeking authorization now.

Question: "Why a year and half later?"

"Because we want to frame policy," Craig said. "We ... "

Question: "Why didn't it happen before?"

"It just didn't happen," Craig said.
Some of Detroiters' biggest concerns are whether the technology could be used in livestream video formats like Project Green Light and the tech's unreliability in rightly identifying people of color. A crucial question considering Detroit is the biggest, majority black city in America.

Chief Craig says the tech has been used about 500 times already.

"Thirty percent of the 500 times that we've done this, have moved on to the next level in the investigation," Craig said. "Only 30 percent. And there has not been a mismatch."

In a letter to residents, Mayor Mike Duggan announced his opposition to the use of the technology for surveillance, but made clear his support for how DPD says it will use the software, taking still images from surveillance video and comparing it to mugshots in their records, or a database maintained by state police.

"Every single digital ID that has been taken in the state of Michigan - since 1998 - have been fed to Michigan State Police for their database,” said Tawana Petty, Detroit Community Technology Program. "They have been using it since 2001, DPD has been using it for two years. Nobody told the public."

Petty's Detroit Community Technology Program has been vocal in its opposition to facial recognition technology and questions DPD's claims it will not be used in livestreaming or real-time scenarios.

"The contract they have with Dataworks clearly says real-time facial recognition streaming technology with unlimited mobile," she said. "They still haven't answered the question about how they are using mobile devices with this technology."

Last week Detroit police commissioner Willie Burton was arrested during a heated meeting in which facial recognition technology figured prominently. He won't face charges. Burton left Thursday's meeting early saying he wasn't feeling well.

Later, during public comment, Detroiters weighed in on the tech. A retired cop says Detroit has had a facial recognition program for years - its citizens.

"Every time you have a person of interest or a suspect, you put that image or that picture out on the six or 11 o'clock news and people identify that person," said Reginald Burton. "That is called community policing."

Two police commissioners were able to get an up close look at the tech and software. More commissioners may do so in the coming days and the board could vote on this in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, legislation is moving through Lansing that would prohibit law enforcement from using facial recognition technology."