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Detroit's pervasive facial-recognition system never got police commission approval


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Detroit police began using a pervasive and controversial facial-recognition system without getting approval from the elected Board of Police Commissioners.

More than a month after Metro Times reported the police department was using the technology with little to no oversight, the commission is planning to vote on the issue at 3 p.m. Thursday.

The commission’s role is to provide civilian oversight for the police department, but lately it has been a virtual rubber stamp for Chief James Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan, who appoints some of the members and helped campaign for the commission chairman, Willie Bell.

At a commission meeting earlier this month, Police Commissioner Willie Burton called for a ballot initiative so residents can decide whether they want the city to use facial recognition technology. The commission rejected his proposal and also declined to support his call for a public hearing on the issue.

To educate the public on the shortcomings of the technology, Burton and some activists are holding a meeting at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at Red Door Digital at 7500 Oakland Ave.

“The public has a right to weigh in,” Burton tells the Metro Times. “This is being forced on people. The public was never notified.”

It’s unclear why police began using the system without the commission’s approval.

Duggan’s office declined to comment, and Metro Times is awaiting comment from the police department.

Detroit is embracing the technology at a time when cities such as San Francisco are banning it because of privacy concerns and racial biases. Congress also is considering a moratorium on the quickly growing technology, with Democrats and Republicans expressing alarm over it.

Detroit's $1-million face-scanning system enables police to identify and track residents captured on hundreds of private and public high-definition cameras installed at parks, schools, immigration centers, gas stations, churches, abortion clinics, hotels, apartments, fast-food restaurants, and addiction treatment centers. Police can identify people at any time using databases containing hundreds of thousands of photos, including mug shots, driver's licenses, and images scraped from social media.

Without public hearings or announcements, the Detroit Police Department integrated the facial-recognition technology with the city's Project Green Light, an initiative that began in 2016 with surveillance cameras at late-night locations like gas stations and fast-food restaurants. It has since expanded to include parks, schools, health clinics, hotels, apartments, lower-income housing, and churches. There are now more than 500 Green Light locations. Detroit police defended the technology, saying it's only used to track down suspects after a crime is committed.

During recent congressional hearings, experts said Detroit and Chicago are the first cities in the nation to use facial-recognition technology that is capable of working in real time. Similar systems are being used by the FBI and other federal agencies at border crossings and airports.

"With little to no input, the city of Detroit created one of the nation's most pervasive and sophisticated surveillance networks with real-time facial-recognition technology," Rep. Rashida Tlaib said during the May 22 hearing. "Policing our communities has become more militarized and flawed. Now we have for-profit companies pushing so-called technology that has never been tested in communities of color, let alone been studied enough to conclude that it makes our communities safer."

Tlaib, whose district includes Detroit, added, "People's freedom is at stake."

Congressional members and legal experts said the technology may violate the fourth and 14th amendments, as well as threaten free speech. Police use the surveillance tool without search warrants, and the technology is faulty and most inaccurate when scanning people of color, experts told the committee.

“We need to start this process over from the beginning so the public can weigh in on it,” Burton said. Community activist Tom Choske said the public was blindsided by the technology.

“We want to let the community know about this policy and the pitfalls of it, and to ensure that the public has their voice heard,” Choske said.

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