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Detroit to face critical decision on police surveillance

"police cam" by 416style is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Detroit will face a critical decision on police surveillance this week. Tomorrow (TUES Sept. 29) Detroit City Council will vote on whether to renew a contract with the software designer that created the Detroit Police Department’s facial recognition technology. It’s a politically contentious decision as the nationwide call for police reform turns local.

Crowd: “We are done kneeling” call and response

It’s been months since protestors across the country first took to the streets in a call against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd. Back in June, hundreds gathered in downtown Detroit. As the march began down Jefferson Avenue, Randy Minniefield watched from the sidelines.

“They’re getting tired of getting abused, neglected, mistreated, talked to, downgraded,” says Minniefield.

Minniefield had been out protesting earlier that week, but had decided to stay away from the main crowd after his previous interaction with the police. He rolls up his t-shirt to show off a large purple welt on his arm right above the veteran’s navy tattoo.

“They seen us standing on the sides and they just indiscriminately starting just firing not even tear gas canisters, just rubber bullets," Minniefield said. "I was struck in my left shoulder.”

Demonstrations have stretched on for months. And while the movement is varied in its goals… a nationwide call to “Defund the Police” is coalescing around specific and local policy demands in Detroit. That demand for change is happening online as much as it’s happening on the streets.

BENSON: “Ms. Bowman you have one minute. Ms. Bowman you’re unmuted.”

"Hi, I’m a resident of District 6 and an organizer with Detroit Will Breathe," says Bowman."

During the digital sessions of Detroit City Council and the city’s Board of Police Commissioners meetings members of the public aligned with the “defund” movement take turns calling for changes to police practice.

Perhaps one of the most consistent calls is to end police surveillance and the two methods Detroit police use to do it – Project Green Light and facial recognition. Both tactics originate with the current administration as Mayor Mike Duggan explains.

“We know we are not going to bring the violence down to the levels that the people of this city deserve by doing the same things," said Duggan. "And so in early ’16, the chief and I started with eight gas stations and said ‘what would happen if you monitor them in real time at police headquarters?’”

Project Green Light is a program where businesses can pay to have their security footage routed directly to the police. About 700 businesses are participating in the program. They can be spotted by the hallmark flashing green light outside their storefronts. While city officials say Project Green Light deters crime from happening at those locations there are no independent studies to prove how well it works.

But there is one effect. According to a recent police presentation the department prioritizes investigating crimes at Project Green Light locations in part because it has access to video evidence that can help make an arrest.

And that leads to the other part of Detroit police surveillance:

If a Project Green Light business captures a suspect of a crime on camera Detroit police can analyze that footage using facial recognition technology which is an automated process for comparing faces. Outside of the video they get from businesses in real-time police can also use the software to search images from places like Instagram and Facebook and really any media source that is available to them. Police officials say the technology is an “investigative tool” like a lie-detector test. Commander Eric Decker heads Detroit’s Major Crimes Division. He says computers can do what police work cannot.

“We’re looking at I think some 50,000 mug pictures that the algorithm immediately brings in there so we can look at those theoretically in a couple minutes," said Decker. "It would take my investigators probably hundreds of hours to go through every mug picture to try to identify somebody.”

But Detroit police have access to even more photos than that. The Statewide Network of Agency Photos or SNAP centralizes all of Michigan’s digital facial images. And in addition to mug shots from the state Department of Corrections SNAP has driver’s license headshots and other forms of I-D. According to researchers with Georgetown Law’s “Perpetual Lineup” project SNAP runs a database of 45-million photos in Michigan.

Last year a federal agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology studied racial bias in facial recognition. It found that African American and Asian American faces were between 10 and 100 times more likely to draw a false positive than Caucasian ones. Rodd Monts is an outreach coordinator with the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan.  He says that’s a major concern.

“When people consider the use of a technology that mis-identifies Black people at such a high rate being used in a city that’s over 80 percent Black, then one can draw the conclusion that that software and the use of it is racist," Monts says. "This technology wouldn't be on the market if it missed identified white people at that rate.”

Two Black men have come forward this year after being mis-identified by Detroit’s facial recognition system. The ACLU filed a complaint on behalf of one of them Robert Williams.  He was wrongly arrested in connection to a shoplifting case at a Shinola store downtown. Detroit police say the department has changed its policies since requiring secondary evidence and human analysis before making an arrest. Police also say they only use the facial recognition software for violent crimes such as homicides and shootings. But Monts says that approach misses the bigger picture.

“It is a really big ask for the public to expected to just trust that no one else will end up wrongfully detained," said Monts. "It’s a burden for Black folks who have to constantly think about how other people in society are viewing them and also have to think about the fact that they’re being watched.” 

This week, Detroit City Council will consider renewing a contract with DataWorks Plus, the developer of the city’s facial recognition software. It’s a 200-thousand dollar deal for technical support, but it could represent a bigger issue– if the political pressure of protests provides enough momentum to change how the City of Detroit funds its police department.