A Black man filed a lawsuit against the Detroit, Michigan police after facial recognition software mistakenly identified him as a store thief. Forty-three year-old Robert Williams was arrested in January 2020 and detained for 30 hours after officers used facial recognition software to identify a man who stole jewelry from a store in October 2018. The software wrongly identified Williams, and now he’s suing.
According to The Washington Post, the case against Williams, a father who lives in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, was dropped less than two weeks after officers made the arrest after prosecutors argued there was insufficient evidence Williams committed the theft.
Police Chief James Craig offered Williams an apology at the time and described the officers’ investigation as “shoddy.”
Williams was driving home at the time the store was being robbed and his case has been used as an example of the danger of law enforcement agencies mainly relying on facial recognition software to make arrests.
A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), found that African and Asian Americans were 100 times more likely to be misidentified by facial recognition software than white men. The study found that Native Americans had the highest instances of wrong IDs across all ethnicities. When testing the software that police investigators typically use, the NIST found that Black women were most often falsely identified.
“How does one explain to two little girls that a computer got it wrong, but the police listened to it anyway?” Williams wrote in The Post last year. “As any other Black man would be, i had to consider what could happen if I asked too many questions or displayed my anger openly –– even though I knew I had done nothing wrong.”
Police jurisdictions across the nation vary in their use of facial recognition technology, and the software remains widely unregulated. The Detroit Free Press reported that advocates have pushed for the Detroit Police Department to stop funding and using the software to no avail.
“Cities across the country have banned police from using facial recognition technology for a reason,” Jeremy Shur, a student attorney from the University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, one of three organizations representing Williams, told The Detroit Free Press. “The technology is racially biased, flawed and easily leads to false arrests of innocent people, just like our client.”
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