He Said, She Said: The Saga of Rep. Tlaib and Chief Craig

By Dan Dildy 

For Detroiters who may have missed it, the ongoing controversy regarding the use of facial recognition technology by the Detroit Police Department had gotten a bit personal between Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Commissioner James CraigTlaibnot a fan of facial technology in the first place—suggested that if Craig insisted on going forward with its usethen he should at the very least hire African American analysts to review the images prior to making arrests, since “non-African Americans think African Americans all look the same,” she insisted. The commissioner took issue with Tlaib and described her comments as “racist” and “insulting. 

While much has been written and discussed over the use of the technologyCommissioner Craig defended his concerns saying, “I trust people who are trained, regardless of race; regardless of gender. It’s about the training.” But here is where I think the Commissioner’s argument fails the smell test. When you consider the statistical analysis from a number of studies of overwhelming violence by “well-trained” police across the country against people of color, it makes good sense that well-trained African Americans could do a more precise job, especially when it comes to life or death decisions on the streets; notwithstanding “well-trained” people of other races looking at camera images a safe distance from the scene. 

Besides, Tlaib’s observations are based on volumes of scientific evidence known as cross-race bias which holds that folks of the same race have a tendency to recognize faces of the race they are most familiar with, most often people of the same race as their own. So, Craig’s admonition of Tlaib’s comments are wrong; her comment wasn’t racist, just pragmatic. And since 80 percent of Detroit’s population is African American, why wouldn’t a prudent Commissioner want to hire African American analysts to review the facial recognition technology? 

Indeed, much has been discovered about the accuracy of the technology, especially as it pertains to darker complexioned people. In studies conducted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, considered a leader in tech research, facial technology is flawed, at best. In test after test, the technology misidentified darkskinned individuals 35 percent of the time, while correctly identifying white subjects 97 percent of the time.  Given these results, it means that roughly 300,000 Detroiters are potential suspects and at risk of being arrested if Commissioner Craig moves forward using facial identification technology.  

In a Detroit News op-ed, Tlaib doubled down on her assertions regarding race identification saying, in effect, if it makes you feel any better, blacks have a hard time identifying whites as well as whites identifying blacks.  But Commissioner Craig’s position was something along the lines of “if I had said what she said, people would be calling for my resignation.” To which some observers, me included, would respond, as they do on the popular NFL segment on ESPN, Chief Craig, “C’mon man!” 

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