Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners Vote YES on Facial Recognition Technology

At 3 p.m. in the middle of a workweek, and tucked away on the third floor of the massive Public Safety Headquarters, Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners
voted 8-3 last month in favor of continuing the Police Department’s hotly-disputed use of facial recognition technology.   

The building itself was the perfect stage for a show so obviously hostile to public scrutiny. As a visitor, you must first pass through a checkpoint requiring you show ID. You then submit your belongings to a baggage scanner and your body to another. The whole time, the place is crawling with police as the Board weighs whether or not to adopt one of the world’s most controversial technologies. And the greatest champions of that technology, Police Chief James Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan, also happen to be some of the most powerful men in city government. 

On top of all this, the vote itself was rammed through in the meeting’s first 30 minutes with no comment period. This was the board’s way of bulldozing over the last hope for public input about a decision of enormous public consequence. 

When comments were eventually allowed, nearly two hours after the actual vote, Amanda Hill, a member of BYP100, which is “dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all Black people,” put it plainly: Hill was “disgusted, but not surprised” that the policy passed. The Board, after all, has signaled for months that it would. Yet Hill had to admit to being somewhat surprised at how shamelessly undemocratic the commissioners acted, using a process “obviously [designed to] go around hearing from the community first,” many of whom have made it clear that “we do not want this technology.”

 “The question,” Hill poses to sympathetic nods throughout the room, “is who are you serving?”

It’s a reasonable thing to ask. The Board’s decision is at odds with a vast arena of players, from specialists on the technology to civil liberties champions and racial justice activists alike. 

It’s worth reviewing why the system sends chills down so many spines in the first place. At more than 500 locations across the city, mounted cameras are currently sending footage straight to DPD headquarters under Project Green Light. Someday, those cameras could potentially be rigged up with technology capable of recognizing faces. So cameras would not only be able to record what’s happening at a given location, but “who is at that location at any given moment.” For the time being, analysts in the department’s Real Time Crime Crime Center can grab screenshots from the footage and run them through a database of mugshots the department has access to.

DPD has kept a straight face while arguing that this “groundbreaking” technology is only used for “strengthening DPD’s efforts to deter, identify, and solve crime.” Maybe. But even if we take them at their word, it fails on its own terms. As the Detroit Free Press reports, one Urban Institute researcher has spotted this argument’s shaky legs, insisting that the scrawny dataset makes “it is nearly impossible to tie Detroit’s crime reduction specifically to Greenlight.”

But opponents argue that this is all beside the point. They insist that establishing a web of highly-sophisticated surveillance, which can basically follow people around town as they do whatever the hell they please, can do enormous damage to basic civil liberties. And they insist that everyday people aren’t sniffing crazy glue when they see what’s right in front of them and fear for those rights.

In their report America Under Watch, for instance, Georgetown researchers Clare Garvie and Laura Moy warn that the technology “risks fundamentally changing the nature of our public spaces” by eroding people’s rights to freedom of speech and privacy. 

Rodd Monts, the Campaign Outreach Coordinator for the ACLU of Michigan, echoes this concern with a pretty straightforward observation: “An expansive surveillance network,” he says, increases “the likelihood that people are being surveilled without their knowledge. We shouldn’t give up our rights just because we leave our house.” 

But as the report highlights, you don’t have to take advocates and academics at their word. Law enforcement itself agrees. Just take a look at how some agencies describe the technology’s “chilling effects” in their own words: “The public could consider the use of facial recognition,” one group argues, “as a form of surveillance…The mere possibility of surveillance has the potential to make people feel extremely uncomfortable, cause people to alter their behavior, and lead to self-censorship and inhibition.”

And then there’s the racism, which is baked right into the thing. “African Americans will disproportionately bear the harms of face recognition misidentification,” the report states. That’s because the technology is, technically speaking, janky as hell and regularly misidentifies Black people. It’s obvious why this would alarm communities where police harassment, imprisonment, and violence already occur with hideous regularity, and where people have long and detailed memories of aggressive law enforcement campaigns to destroy their movements for freedom and basic dignity.

In spite of all this, the commissioners decided they didn’t need broad public support. Nor did they need a mountain of evidence to take the city down such a reliably nightmarish path. They merely needed the  stamp of power. 

Meanwhile, members of the public were putting forward a radically different vision for the city. One where economic misery is wiped out and everyday people get to participate in the decisions that shape their lives. 

The ACLU and a broad coalition of progressive groups addressed the board in a letter, calling for “shifting city resources toward better supporting the health and well-being” of communities, “rather than increasing” the footprint of surveillance and law enforcement. The first path involves “improving housing and public
transportation” and “addressing public health needs” in order to improve people’s lives. The second path “sends a message that the only way to keep us safe is by treating us as threats to be monitored, tracked, and incarcerated, using ever-more-sophisticated technology.”

And despite placing new safeguards on the technology, the coalition still “oppose it…in any form.” Monts put the commissioners on notice, promising “to make sure that the residents demand that the Board hold the [police] department accountable” to its new guidelines while demanding regular reports on the technology’s use.

The weekend before the vote, I linked up with the campaign to Green Light Black Futures,” which was organized by BYP100, along Michigan Avenue, a “Greenlight Corridor.” The scene couldn’t have been further from the relentlessly stuffy and elite boardroom atmosphere that swallowed the commissioners meeting. A few dozen working-class people had answered the call to come out on a Sunday to rally and march against the spiraling system of surveillance.

We cut through the swarm of Lions’ fans, all of them wearing looks that span from horrified disapproval to trembling amazement, as we spill further and further along the avenue. Each demand has a simple principle at its core: that the city “end the hyper-surveillance of Project Green Light” and begin to “invest in the people of Detroit,” by shoveling the millions being funneled into surveillance towards things like preventing foreclosures, job training, and clean water.

Rashad Buni, a BYP100 member, spoke clearly about not only demolishing old systems and institutions of oppression, but building new ones for everyday people to achieve their common aspirations. 

“Surveillance cameras all across the city” that are “targeting low income and poor working class black areas” do not “make us any more safe,” Buni said. To do that we would “have to stop investing millions and millions of dollars into increasing the police state” while totally avoiding “the root issues of harm and violence”— namely, an economic system of widespread suffering where people are left powerless to determine their own futures. 

Instead, we can “begin [building] new systems of safety that are based in restorative and transformative justice.” And where everyone has access to “the resources needed” for “people to thrive.” 

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