Police wrongfully arrest black man after facial recognition software mistook him for shoplifter

Danielle Zoellner
·3 min read
Sean Davis/flickr
Sean Davis/flickr

A black man was wrongfully arrested after facial recognition software mistook him for a shoplifter, and now the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is filing a formal complaint against the Detroit police.

Robert Williams of Farmington Hills, Michigan, was arrested on 9 January after facial recognition falsely linked him to an image of another person of colour at the crime scene, the ACLU said.

Officers were looking for a watch thief, and the software, owned by the Michigan State Police, connected Mr WIlliams' driver licence picture with security footage of the thief.

Mr Williams was arrested at his home, nearly 25 miles from Detroit, in front of his wife and his daughters, who are two and five.

"I never thought I'd have to explain to my daughters why Daddy got arrested," Williams wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. "How does one explain to two little girls that a computer got it wrong, but the police listened to it anyway?"

During the arrest, his wife, Melissa Williams, asked where her husband was being taken.

"Google it," the officer reportedly said to her.

Mr Williams was detained for 30 hours. During questioning, officers showed him security footage from the robbery.

"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," Mr Williams told NPR.

"(The detective) flips the third page over and says, 'So I guess the computer got it wrong, too.' And I said, 'Well, that's me,' pointing at a picture of my previous driver's licence," Mr Williams added. " 'But that guy's not me,'" he said, referring to the surveillance pictures.

Mr Williams added he hoped police officers didn't think "all black people look alike".

Mr Williams was eventually released on bail. At his court hearing, he was told by prosecutors that they were dropping the case against him.

His case is the first known example of someone being wrongly accused of a crime due to facial recognition software, the ACLU claimed.

Police admitted that he was arrested because of the facial recognition results, according to documents obtained by NPR, leading ACLU to file a complaint against the department.

The ACLU is demanding an apology from the Detroit Police Department for the wrongful arrest.

The group is also asking for the police department to stop using the technology to prevent future wrongful arrests against innocent people.

"Robert Williams' is the first known case of someone being wrongfully arrested because of a bogus face recognition match," the ACLU said. "If lawmakers don't act now to stop law enforcement use of this technology, he won't be the last."

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