Michigan Man Sues Detroit Police Department After Wrongful Arrest Aided by Facial Recognition Software

Terrell Jermaine Starr
·3 min read

A 43-year-old Black man is suing the Detroit Police Department after he was wrongfully arrested and identified as a shoplifting suspect by the department’s facial recognition software, according to the Washington Post.

Robert Williams, a father of two girls who lives in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, was arrested last year after being accused of taking watches from a Shinola store. Cops used a facial recognition search of the store’s surveillance-camera footage that identified Williams as the culprit. Of course, he wasn’t their guy. Williams said he was driving home from work when the 2018 crime was committed. He was interrogated and held in jail for 30 hours before being let go.

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Prosecutors dropped the charges two weeks later after admitting they didn’t have sufficient evidence. DPD Chief James Craig apologized for the arrest, saying his detectives did “shoddy” investigative work.

Williams’ lawyers did not make him available for comment on the case, but he wrote in the Washington Post last year that the arrest left him shaken, in part because his young daughters had watched him get arrested in his driveway and put into a police car after returning from work.

“How does one explain to two little girls that a computer got it wrong, but the police listened to it anyway?” he wrote. “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.”

Research has shown that the technology consistency misidentifies people of color. Williams’ case could help raise more awareness over the use of facial recognition software that is not really that regulated.

As the Post reports, the technology has a lot of problems:

The software’s accuracy is heavily dependent on image quality: Blurry, grainy or dark photos often lead to poor results. But even the algorithms used in a facial recognition search can offer a wide range of effectiveness: Several of those tested in a 2019 federal study were up to 100 times more likely to misidentify the face of a Black or Asian person, compared with a White person.

Williams’s lawsuit is the second accusing Detroit police of making a false facial recognition match: In September, a 26-year-old man named Michael Oliver sued the department, saying his false arrest on a 2019 larceny charge led him to lose his job and spend three days in jail.

The same detective, Donald Bussa, investigated both Oliver and Williams and is named in both lawsuits. Craig has criticized Bussa’s use of a “blurry” photo and said the department has worked to change the facial recognition policies that led to the arrest.

In a third lawsuit, filed in January, a man named Nijer Parks sued New Jersey police and prosecutors, saying he was held in jail for 10 days after he was falsely accused of stealing from a hotel gift shop in 2019. All three cases are ongoing.

DPD Police Chief Craig said that officers aren’t supposed to be using facial recognition technology on its own and that “there’s a high probability that it’s going to misidentify” in such cases, he told a Detroit Board of Police Commissioners meeting last year, the Post reports.

Activists have long fought against police departments using facial recognition software. Last year, IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft said they would pause or end sales of their facial recognition technology to police in the United States after activists pressed them over the racism behind the technology and its harmful impact on policing that already disproportionately targets people of color.