Father arrested after license "matches" surveillance in Detroit facial recognition software, ACLU says

A metro Detroit father was arrested in front of his wife and two young children in January after police believed he stole almost $4,000 in Shinola watches. Police arrested him based on a computer telling them his driver's license photo matched a picture from a grainy surveillance video from the store, according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.

Robert Williams, 42, of Farmington Hills, was arrested in January for the alleged robbery with his young daughters, ages 2 and 5, watching with their mother as he was put in a patrol car.

Investigators were trying to find the man who stole roughly $3,800 from a Shinola store in Detroit in October 2018. The video showed a black man in a St. Louis Cardinals hat as the alleged suspect. Williams does not own a Cardinals hat and is not a baseball fan, the ACLU said, but he is, however, a black man.

After five months, the ACLU said they did nothing to identify the suspect. In March 2019, they arranged a facial recognition search.

The hit came back to Williams. 

In July 2019, the ACLU said DPD investigated by conducting a 'rigged photographic lineup' by showing six photos, including Williams, to the shop security guard. The ACLU said he hadn't witnessed the robbery but, based only on review of the grainy and dark surveillance image, he picked Williams' picture as the guy in the video. 

On January 9, 2020, almost 18 months after the robbery, Detroit Police called Williams and told him to report to be arrested but did not provide further information. Williams thought it was a prank and asked for more information but says he was threatened to be arrested at his work. 

A photo of the alleged suspect wanted for theft in Detroit and Robert Williams. The ACLU said facial recognition software used by Detroit Police produced a false lead and a false arrest. Via ACLU of Michigan.

"In other words, the DPD used the threat of public humiliation and potential loss of employment to browbeat Mr. Williams into not asking any questions," the ACLU claims.

Williams was heading home from work and said he'd be willing to talk with police at his home in Farmington Hills. Before he arrived, police were already there and questioned his wife - and one even stopped her from closing the door by putting their foot inside the home. 

When Williams arrived at home, he was arrested on his front lawn before he could even talk to his wife and family.

Williams' wife tried to keep her daughters from seeing what was happening but they saw their dad being arrested and taken away.

When she asked the police where he was being taken, an officer responded she should "Google it."

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

Williams spent almost 30 hours in jail at the Detroit Detention Center and it wasn't until the next day when he was interrogated that it was clear that his arrest was based on "erroneous facial recognition identification."

While police were interrogating him, an officer showed him the picture of the suspect and Williams said it wasn't him. He showed him another picture and Williams picked it up, held it next to his face, and said "I hope you all don't think all Black people look alike."

The officer was confused and told Williams that the computer said it was him before acknowledging that "the computer must have gotten it wrong", according to the ACLU. Instead of being released, Williams was arraigned later in the day and given a personal bond, yet still was being held until after dark. 

Only then, on a cold and wet January night, he was forced to stand outside and wait for his wife to find child care so she could come to pick them up.

Williams' experience got worse as he got home, his children were playing games involving arresting people and accused him of stealing things from them. He said he had to explain to his family and employer what happened and has to live with the stigma of being arrested on his front lawn, in front of his family and neighbors.

He also had to pay for an attorney to represent him in front of a judge.

At the probable cause conference, a Wayne County prosecutor dropped the charges "without prejudice", meaning DPD and prosecutors can still "harass" Williams and his family again, the ACLU says. 

His attorney obtained an order requiring the prosecutor's office hand over the file on Williams, which includes the warrant and any camera footage of his arrest. Prosecutors stonewalled and allegedly said they couldn't locate the documents.

In February, Williams' attorney filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from DPD for all of the documents related to his arrest. They have not been provided.

The ACLU has not filed a lawsuit against Detroit Police, but instead has filed a complaint demanding that the charges be dismissed with prejudice and DPD should apologize for the trauma. 

The ACLU is also demanding DPD stop using facial recognition, remove any pictures of Williams from the database, and respond to the FOIA request in full.

Police Chief James Craig said the arrest took place before the city was using its own facial recognition system.

"It's a mischaracterization of how we used it. We did not have the rigor that we now have - we have our own system that was approved by the police commission," Craig said.