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Facial recognition led to unlawful arrests. So Detroit is making changes.

In January 2020, Robert Williams spent 30 hours in a Detroit jail after facial recognition technology suggested he was a criminal. The match was wrong, and Mr. Williams filed a lawsuit.

Friday, as part of a legal settlement Because of his wrongful arrest, Mr. Williams received a commitment from the Detroit Police Department to do better. The city has adopted new rules for the use of facial recognition technology by police. The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. Williams, said this should be the new national standard.

“We hope this moves the needle in the right direction,” Mr Williams said.

Mr. Williams was the first person known to have been wrongfully arrested based on flawed facial recognition. But he wasn’t the last. Detroit police have arrested at least two other people as a result of botched facial recognition searches, including a woman accused of carjacking her when she was eight months pregnant.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are using facial recognition technology to identify criminals whose crimes are caught on camera. In Michigan, the software compares an unfamiliar face to a database of arrest photos or driver’s license photos. In other jurisdictions, police use tools like Clearview AI that sift through photos scraped from social media sites and the public internet.

One of the most significant new rules passed in Detroit is that images of people identified through facial recognition technology can no longer be shown to an eyewitness in a photo lineup unless there is other evidence linking them to the crime.

“The pipeline of ‘take a picture, punch it in a line’ will end,” said Phil Mayor, an attorney for the ACLU of Michigan. “This settlement transforms the Detroit Police Department from the most documented abuser of facial recognition technology to a national leader in having guardrails on its use.”

Police say facial recognition technology is a powerful tool in solving crimes, but some cities and states, including San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Oregon, have temporarily banned its use over privacy and racial bias concerns. Stephen Lamoreaux, chief information officer for Detroit’s crime intelligence division, said police are “very committed to using technology in a meaningful way for public safety.” Detroit, he said, “has the strongest policy in the country right now.”

Mr. Williams was arrested after a crime that occurred in 2018. A man stole five watches from a downtown Detroit boutique while being recorded by a surveillance camera. A loss prevention company provided the footage to Detroit police.

A search of the man’s face against driver’s license photos and arrest photos turned up 243 photos, ranked in order of the system’s confidence that it was the same person in the surveillance video, according to documents released as part of Mr. Williams’ lawsuit. An old photo of Mr. Williams’ driver’s license was ninth on the list. The person conducting the search deemed it the best match and sent a report to a Detroit police detective.

The detective included Mr. Williams’ photo in a “six-pack picture frame” — photos of six people in a grid — which he showed to the security guard who had provided the store’s surveillance video. She agreed that Mr. Williams was the best match for the man in the boutique, and this led to the warrant for his arrest. Mr. Williams, who was at his desk at an auto supply house when the watches were stolen, spent the night in jail and had his fingerprints and DNA collected. He was charged with retail fraud and had to hire a lawyer to defend himself. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case.

He sued Detroit in 2021, hoping to force a ban on the technology so others wouldn’t suffer his fate. He said he was angry last year when he learned that Detroit police had charged Porcha Woodruff with carjacking and theft after a bad facial recognition match. Police arrested Ms. Woodruff as she was getting her children ready for school. She has also sued the city; the lawsuit is ongoing.

“It’s so dangerous,” Mr. Williams said, referring to facial recognition technology. “I don’t see the positive benefit of it.”

Detroit police are responsible for three of the seven known cases in which facial recognition led to a wrongful arrest. (The others were in Louisiana, New Jersey, Maryland and Texas.) But Detroit officials said the new controls would prevent more abuse. And they remain optimistic about the crime-solving potential of the technology, which they now use only in cases involving serious crimes, including assault, murder and home invasions.

Detroit Police Chief James White blamed the wrongful arrests on “human error.” His officers, he said, relied too much on the technology’s clues. It was their judgment that was flawed, not the machine’s.

The new policy, which goes into effect this month, should help with that. Under the new rules, police will no longer be allowed to show a person’s face to an eyewitness based solely on a facial recognition match.

“There has to be some kind of secondary supporting evidence that is not relevant before there is sufficient justification to start the lineup,” he said Mr. Lamoreaux of the Detroit Crime Intelligence Unit. Police would need location information from a person’s phone, for example, or DNA evidence – something more than a physical resemblance.

The department is also changing the way photo lineups are conducted. It’s using what’s called a double-blind sequence, which is considered a fairer way to identify someone. Instead of presenting a witness with a “six-pack,” an officer — someone who doesn’t know who the prime suspect is — presents the photos one at a time. And the lineup includes a different photo of the person than the one the facial recognition system turned up.

Police will also have to reveal that a facial search has taken place, as well as the quality of the image of the face being searched. How grainy was the surveillance camera? How visible is the suspect’s face? — because a poor quality image is less likely to produce reliable results. They will also have to reveal the age of the photo turned up by the automated system, and whether there were other photos of the person in the database that did not appear as a match.

Detroit Deputy Police Chief Franklin Hayes said he was confident the new practices would prevent future misidentifications.

“There are still a few things that can go wrong, for example identical twins,” Mr Hayes said. “We can never say never, but we believe this is our best policy yet.”

Arun Ross, a computer science professor at Michigan State University and an expert on facial recognition technology, said Detroit’s policy is a good starting point and that other agencies should adopt it.

“We don’t want to trample on the rights and privacy of individuals, but we also don’t want crime to flourish,” Mr Ross said.

Eyewitness identification is a loaded Police have embraced cameras and facial recognition as more reliable tools than imperfect human memory.

Chief White told local lawmakers said last year that facial recognition technology had helped “take 16 killers off the streets.” When police officers were asked for more information, they did not provide details on those cases.

Instead, police officials played a game to demonstrate the department’s successes with the technology surveillance video of a man who poured fuel into a gas station and set it on fire. They said he was identified using facial recognition technology and arrested that night. He was later pleaded guilty.

The Detroit Police Department is one of the few that oversees facial recognition searches. weekly reports on its use for a supervisory board. In recent years, it has averaged more than 100 searches per year, with about half of those searches returning potential matches.

The department only keeps track of how often it receives a lead, not whether the lead actually comes out. But as part of the settlement with Mr. Williams — who also received $300,000, according to a police spokesman — the company must conduct an audit of its facial recognition searches dating back to when it first started using the technology in 2017. If there are other cases where people were arrested with little or no corroborating evidence other than a facial match, the department is supposed to alert the relevant prosecutor.

Molly Kleinman, director of a technology research center at the University of Michigan, said the new protection sounded promising, but she remained skeptical.

“Detroit is an extremely well-surveilled city. There are cameras everywhere,” she said. “If all this surveillance technology really did what it says it would, Detroit would be one of the safest cities in the country.”

Willie Burton, a member of the Board of Police Commissioners, an oversight group that approved the new policy, described it as “a step in the right direction,” though he remained opposed to the use of facial recognition technology by police.

“The technology isn’t ready yet,” Mr. Burton said. “One false arrest is one too many, and three in Detroit should set off an alarm to stop it.”

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