back to article Detroit cops cuffed, threw a dad misidentified by facial recognition in jail. Now the ACLU's demanding action

The American Civil Liberties Union has formally complained to Detroit police, who wrongfully arrested and locked up a dad after he was misidentified as a thief by facial-recognition software and a security guard. Robert Williams was cuffed and taken away by officers in January in front of his wife and two young children on his …

  1. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    WTF?

    "the guard didn’t witness the crime personally, was relying on CCTV footage provided by the police"

    Leaving aside the error-prone nature of facial recognition systems, why on Earth would the cops ask a security guard who hadn't witnessed the crime to implicate someone based on footage that the cops already had? Can't the cops have one of their own look at the CCTV footage and decide which of the suspects looks most like the guy in the video? Do the cops in Detroit run around asking random citizens to look at footage of crimes and decide who the cops should pick up for the offense?

    1. Arctic fox
      Unhappy

      Re: "the guard didn’t witness the crime personally, was relying on CCTV footage......

      ..........provided by the police"

      I had to read that bit several times because I could not believe my eyes. What the eff did those cops think that they were playing at? Such an "identification" would be ruled out in any court you care to name. Professional police officers? WTF!

      1. David 132 Silver badge

        Re: "the guard didn’t witness the crime personally, was relying on CCTV footage......

        I’m only surprised that they didn’t then try to pin charges on him of “loitering with intent to use a pedestrian crossing”, “smelling of foreign food” and “looking at me in a funny way”...

        1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

          Re: "the guard didn’t witness the crime personally, was relying on CCTV footage......

          You forgot "walking in a loud shirt in a built-up area during the hours of darkness" and "walking around with an offensive wife"!

          1. Symon Silver badge
            Big Brother

            Re: "the guard didn’t witness the crime personally, was relying on CCTV footage......

            As good as the NTNON skit was, it had already bindun!

            Superintendent : You are hereby charged: one, that you did, on or about 1126, conspire to publicise a London Borough in the course of a BBC saga; two, that you were wilfully and persistently a foreigner; three, that you conspired to do things not normally considered illegal; four, that you were caught in possession of an offensive weapon, viz., the big brown table down at the police station...

            Judge : The big brown table down at the police station?

            Superintendent : The big brown table down at the police station?

            All : Assaulting a police officer!

            Police Constable Pan-Am : No... anyway, I clearly saw the deceased...

            Clerk : Defendant.

            Police Constable Pan-Am : Defendant! Sorry. Sorry, super. I clearly saw the defendant... doing whatever he's accused of. Red handed! When kicked - cautioned, he said,

            [as if reading line by line]

            Police Constable Pan-Am : "It's a fair cop, I done it all. Right no doubt about that." Then, bound as he was to the chair, he assaulted myself and three other officers while bouncing around the cell. The end.

            https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0651003/characters/nm0001037

          2. LucreLout Silver badge

            Re: "the guard didn’t witness the crime personally, was relying on CCTV footage......

            You forgot ... "walking around with an offensive wife"!

            We're all guilty of that Sir. Much as we love 'em now, they're going to be someones mother in law one day......

      2. Warm Braw Silver badge

        Re: "the guard didn’t witness the crime personally, was relying on CCTV footage......

        Detroit officers had shown a security guard working at the swanky store six photographs. One of them was Williams’ driver’s license picture.

        And these were the other 5.

    2. tip pc Silver badge

      Re: "the guard didn’t witness the crime, was relying on CCTV footage provided by the police"

      “ why on Earth would the cops ask a security guard who hadn't witnessed the crime to implicate someone based on footage that the cops already had?”

      It’s how you legitimise your actions.

      When viewed in ‘the round’ the detail is missed and deemed insignificant to the overall result of clearing cases.

      Unless these issues percolate to the top of news feeds no one knows about the injustice, if you don’t know you can’t care. In this case the police & facial recognition vendor could have claimed success in arresting a suspected perpetrator.

      The real damage is done to the suspect, being arrested from his own home, in front of his family and neighbours, despite being innocent everyone will remember that day he was arrested, treated like a criminal and thrown in custody.

      When you’ve done the right thing all your life, suddenly being a criminal in the eyes of society despite never doing any wrong is something I imagine will have an impact on the rest of your life. What would your boss say especially if work are looking to cut staff.

      None of us can walk in that mans shoes, but just try and imagine the life impact of something like that happening to you.

  2. thames

    The facial recognition report has said outright there were no grounds for arresting anyone.

    A quick google of Robert Williams' name will turn up a copy of the report spat out by the facial recognition system.

    The facial recognition system report says right at the top of it in large bold letters, using red characters and underlines to emphasize it, that the report was only to be used as a lead, that is as a starting point, and was not on its own sufficient grounds to arrest anyone. To arrest someone they needed to do some investigating and to develop enough of a case to provide grounds to arrest someone.

    It other words the facial recognition system report was to be considered as at best no more than an unverified tip, and not as anything that could be regarded as evidence.

    If that was all the police had, then at most they could be expected to drop by someone's house, ask a few questions, and perhaps hold up the photo they had to see if it looked like him.

    In other reports the cops in question were claiming that "the computer got it wrong" when very clearly "the computer" was making great pains to state there wasn't grounds to arrest anyone based on that photo comparison.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: The facial recognition report has said outright there were no grounds for arresting anyone.

      "A quick google of Robert Williams' name will turn up a copy of the report spat out by the facial recognition system."

      If you're referring to this, that's not a direct output from the software – as far as I can tell – it's internal paperwork generated by the police, with a big note on it saying this is just a lead.

      The way the officers went about confirming the lead – apparently showing it to a guard who didn't witness the crime – was, well, sub-optimal.

      C.

      1. BebopWeBop Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: The facial recognition report has said outright there were no grounds for arresting anyone.

        Ahh - 'sub optimal' the new 'we fucked up'

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The facial recognition report has said outright there were no grounds for arresting anyone.

          Ahh - 'sub optimal' the new 'we fucked up'

          Yup, forget Orwell's 'Doublethink', 'Newspeak' and 'Plusgood', we're now making it up on our own.

          "I wasn't talking total crap, it was 'alternative truth'..."

          "I didn't blatently lie to your face, I 'mis-spoke'..."

      2. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: The facial recognition report has said outright there were no grounds for arresting anyone.

        what was also "sub-optimal" (apparently) was the JUDGE who would have to approve an arrest via an arrest warrant, AND any bail setting in an arraignment that would leave him sitting in jail awaiting trial...

        "wrongful arrest" does happen from time to time, which is why we have judges and courts to minimize it. But if the "evidence" of facial recognition is being used to BYPASS normal rules of evidence, and incarcerate people (even if it's awaiting trial), then it's GOT to STOP.

        Instead, fingerprints, DNA, and "unexplained income" from the fencing of stolen property, OR the actual stolen property itself - those things would be REAL evidence. Apparently they didn't have any of those.

        NOTE: a search warrant may be fine, based on facial recog, but that would just authorize them to LOOK for "the REAL evidence". Not the same as arrest+jail.

    2. tip pc Silver badge

      Re: The facial recognition report has said outright there were no grounds for arresting anyone.

      Turns out the police investigated by talking to the security at the location of the theft who didn’t witness the crime and decided after watching some videos that the guy who was subsequently arrested was a good fit for the crime.

      I’m surprised that readers here are surprised that this nonsense goes on. Watch the sweeney, minder, the professionals, life on Mars even. It’s not a myth that police for decades ‘fitted’ people up, presenting evidence in a way in order to arrest and secure conviction.

      1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: The facial recognition report has said outright there were no grounds for arresting anyone.

        It's quite simple, really.

        They're metrics-driven. Another case closed.

      2. Eclectic Man

        Re: The facial recognition report has said outright there were no grounds for arresting anyone.

        When Robert (later Sir Robert) Mark was appointed to the London Metropolitan Police he said that the plainclothes division of the Met was "the most corrupt organisation in London". He also said that one test of a Police Force is whether it catches more criminals than it employs, and that at the time the Met was failing that test.

        I wonder how a police force which asks a security guard to identify someone based on CCTV footage would score?

        I'm currently reading a book called "Me and White Supremacy", a work book to discover how to be less prejudiced against Black, Indigenous and people of Colour (BIPOC), it recommends watching the documentary about James Baldwin and the struggle against racism in the USA in the late 20th century "I am not your Negro". Well worth watching, particularly for the footage at the end of Police 'interacting' with Black people. Warning, the film of Rodney King being beaten by half a dozen cops is far from the worst violence depicted.

  3. Schultz Silver badge
    Stop

    The problem is not the AI, it's the police

    (1) If you run face recognition against a large enough database, you must expect false positives even if the false positive rate is very low. The same would happen if you have a human comparing faces. It is stupid to use such dragnet methods for police work.

    (2) Do you think that an average white man would have been arrested without at least some rudimentary investigation?

    The fact that the police went out and arrested a black man without second thoughts probably reflects racial bias of the police. This doesn't need to reflect overt racism, but it highlights that black people are treated differently. Let's see if the currently political protests change anything. We definitely seem to hear more about those stories than we did in the past.

    1. Blofeld's Cat Silver badge
      Unhappy

      Re: The problem is not the AI, it's the police

      An actor I know took part in a reconstruction for a TV "Crimewatch" program.

      Shortly after the program aired he was arrested on three different occasions, including one where a patrol car made a spectacular U-turn across four lanes of rush-hour traffic to grab him. He also got turned in by several neighbours and friends.

      Although his innocence was obviously beyond doubt, he is still viewed as a "wrong un" who "got away with it" in some circles.

      1. Phones Sheridan

        Re: The problem is not the AI, it's the police

        Exactly the same thing kept happening to Hilton McRae after appearing in the The execution of Gary Glitter fake documentary. He kept facing attacks in the street from enraged lynch-mob TV viewers unable to distinguish his acting performance from reality.

      2. iron Silver badge

        Re: The problem is not the AI, it's the police

        A friend of mine who looked like a suspect on Crimewatch had a similar issue. He definitely didn't commit the crime which was in London because he was sat in my flat in Glasgow at the time. The local Police knew it wasn't him but several people shopped him so we both had to make statements.

    2. BrownishMonstr Bronze badge

      Re: The problem is not the AI, it's the police

      Well, it depends. Which white man?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The problem is not the AI, it's the police

        like Schulz said, an average white man. ANY average white man.

        1. BrownishMonstr Bronze badge

          Re: The problem is not the AI, it's the police

          What is defined to be an average, white man? Blue eyes? Blonde hair? Loves football? Is neither posh, nor too poor? Born and bred in Manchester? London?

          An average white man can be discriminated against depending on who is doing the discrimination, whether they are an elite who looks down on "grubby northerners", or indeed if the discriminator isn't white (there was a school where Muslim teachers were being hired/promoted and others would get the boot).

          As per my handle, I'm not white, but I would much prefer the world to be fair to all, including the poor, than to a select few.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The problem is not the AI, it's the police

      A study on police line-ups (which are only done on-line in the UK) recommended that an extra 'unknown empty face' photo should always be included in the list of images shown so people don't feel pressured into picking a false positive just to please the police. I don't know if the UK ever adopted this.

    4. JohnG Silver badge

      Re: The problem is not the AI, it's the police

      "The fact that the police went out and arrested a black man without second thoughts probably reflects racial bias of the police."

      From what was in the press, it seems the surveillance footage was enough for the police to know their suspect was (as their innocent victim put it) "a big black guy" - but it seems they just went and arrested the first "big black guy" they could find.

  4. You aint sin me, roit
    Black Helicopters

    What database was the AI searching?

    Driver's licence? The same photo they showed to the guard? Are the coppers allowed to access it for speculative trolling purposes?

    "If you've done nothing wrong you can't object to us having your details in our database... or are you feeling guilty, citizen?"

    1. BrownishMonstr Bronze badge

      Re: What database was the AI searching?

      You would think the police would be just as terrified as another copper could access their details.

      After working within an industry, I realise how trustworthy those operating within it are, hint: not very much. You see mistakes and questionable things, and you realise things, things you wouldn't imagine.

      Do coppers, having seeing how other officers act, not think it could happen to them. Do they not pay more attention? Or do they look after their own kind? If the last one, that is extremely terrible and I personally would have zero trust in them.

      Fire the fuckers that do that.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: What database was the AI searching?

        "Or do they look after their own kind?"

        Of course they do. Look at the cops charged recently in the US where the video evidence, at least as presented, is pretty much incontrovertible, the degree of the charges being the only obvious bone of contention, and yet some of their colleagues "called in sick" or even quit in defence of the accused.

        Likewise, look closely at the police unions and their records on opposing more and better training and procedural changes in response to previous years and decades of discrimination and police violence.

  5. EnviableOne Silver badge

    Not an AI issue

    the issue isnt the software, or the "computer," it can only work on the data it has, the problem is the training datasets and posibly the programmers.

    If the training database was more representative and the model assumtions tested for bias, Facial recognition would be a lot better.

  6. PassiveSmoking

    Facial recognition?

    It literally can't tell shit from Shinola.

  7. cjb

    Pardon my cynicism!

    ".... mistook US Congress members for suspected criminals..."

    - Cynicism Alert ?

  8. gnasher729 Silver badge

    Don’t know if it’s true, but at the time Apples FaceID was released I read a claim “about one in a million people look so similar to you that your friends can’t tell who is who if they put you side by side”. In the USA that would mean for every crime, there are about 300 people in the USA that look exactly like the perpetrator.

    The article also showed pictures of two young women: One who was identified as a robber by two security guards and convicted, and one who confessed when she saw a picture of an innocent woman going to jail in the newspaper. The pictures were identical.

  9. very angry man
    Devil

    US Congress members for suspected criminals in a database of mugshots.

    A previous investigation by the ACLU into Amazon’s controversial Rekognition software revealed US Congress members are known criminals in a database of mugshots.

    FIFY

  10. LucreLout Silver badge

    No manual check? They were right there!

    “I hope you all don’t think all black men look alike,” Williams said he told officers during his interrogation behind bars. “The computer must have gotten it wrong,” an officer replied, we're told.

    Ok, the computer got it wrong. It happens. However, it seems to me that there were a pair of police officers there that could have performed some sort of visual check against an image before arresting the guy.

    I do want to take a moment to unpick what "all look alike" really means though... Lets flip the situation first so the usual suspects don't shit their pants over it.

    Take a country with a predominantly black population with a significant white minority.... say south Africa. Lets say the criminal in the cctv is a white man, and a couple of black police come to my door.

    Are they there because they're racist? Maybe, maybe not... The fact that they have identified a man eliminates half of the population. The fact that they have identified a man of the correct age bracket eliminates roughly another 75% of what remained. The fact that they identified a white man eliminates probably about 90% of whatever is left.

    We've got quite specific quite quickly in that while that description may match 3% of the population, both I and the actual criminal are definitely in that 3%. Likely the computer has narrowed it further, to similar build or facial shape for instance, but there's no evidence of that available.

    It should absolutely not be enough to arrest someone for without manually checking the pictures because it could be transparently obvious it isn't me just from a glance, and I have every right to expect them to perform the check before taking further action. They do, however, have every right to come to my door to do the check.

    "When I look at the picture of the guy, I just see a big Black guy. I don't see a resemblance. I don't think he looks like me at all," Williams told NPR.

    Regrettably, if the Shaggy defence worked then the prisons would be empty.

    1. tip pc Silver badge

      Re: No manual check? They were right there!

      Would it be ok for the police to arrest you at your home in front of your wife, kids neighbours and wider community and hold you in detention over night?

      Let us know if your still ok about things after you’ve been through that.

      Also a better example would perhaps be a white person in Zimbabwe or somewhere equivalent.

  11. onemark03

    What the eff did those cops think that they were playing at?

    Not difficult, really: your basic American police racial prejudice coupled with pressure to achieve an arrest target.

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