July 24, 2024

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He was arrested because of a computer error. Now he wants to fix the system.

When the Detroit Police Department called Robert Williams, he thought it was a prank. 

The voice on the other end of the line told Williams to turn himself in at the DPD’s Third Precinct. Why? The cop wouldn’t say.  

“I can’t turn myself in if you can’t tell me,” Williams recalls saying. “I said, ‘If you want me, you can come to my house and bring a warrant.'”

But it was late in his work day, and Williams was disturbed enough to head home, calling his wife, Melissa, as he drove. When she answered, the cops were already there. 

What Williams didn’t know on that day back in January is that he had been misidentified by the Detroit Police Department’s controversial facial recognition technology as a shoplifter who allegedly stole five watches from Midtown’s trendy Shinola store in October 2018, making him the first person known to have been arrested because of a facial recognition failure. 

What happened next is baffling. 

Robert Williams
Robert Williams

The charges were ultimately dismissed, but not before Williams, 42, was arrested, arraigned, detained for 30 hours and questioned in connection with a crime that took place in a store he hadn’t visited since 2014, a humiliating set of events Williams says neither he nor his wife and children have been able to really move past.

And none of it had to happen.

Facial recognition technology is controversial precisely because of its high error rate in identifying non-white faces; because for 18 months, the department used it without a publicly vetted, Board of Police Commissioners-approved operating policy; and because critics fear it short-hands what should be a thorough investigative process. 

Williams could easily have proved that he wasn’t the man in question — he was at work at his job at an automotive supplier when the reported theft happened. But DPD didn’t ask, he said.

Instead, officers arrived at his home on a quiet Farmington Hills street, cuffing Williams, who had no criminal record, and placing him into a squad car as his wife and young children watched. 

More: In the hands of police, facial recognition software risks violating civil liberties

Wednesday, Williams, with the ACLU of Michigan and his lawyer, Victoria Burton-Harris, filed a complaint with the Detroit Police, asking the department and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office for a series of corrective actions to repair the damage done to Williams’ reputation — like removing Williams’ image from the facial recognition database — and to halt the use of facial recognition technology altogether. The department’s contract with facial recognition software provider DataWorks Plus, based in South Carolina, is up for renewal, and ending use of the technology has become an issue in the wave of protests against police brutality. 

Chief James Craig has contended that facial recognition is used in a thoughtful, deliberative manner, the equivalent of paging through a book of digital mugshots, and that leads are always vetted by a human analyst. In August 2019, Craig told reporters on a tour of DPD’s Real Time Crime Center that the software had been used 500 times, and never resulted in a misidentification. Later that year, the Board of Police Commissioners adopted a policy to govern its use; the department now only uses facial recognition to identify suspects in violent crimes. 

But none of those policy changes helped Robert Williams. 

Williams was taken to the Detroit Detention Center, where he was processed and questioned, an experience so surreal that neither he nor Melissa can quite believe that it happened.   

While Williams was in custody, a DPD officer showed him an image taken from Shinola surveillance footage of a Black man in a red cap. 

“He turns over this picture and says, ‘So that’s not you?’ I laughed a little bit, because it looked nothing like me, and said, ‘Nope, that’s not me,'” he said. The officer presented two more pictures — neither of Williams.  “So I guess the computer got it wrong, too,” Williams remembers the officer saying. 

It was the officer’s offhand remark about the computer that let Robert and Melissa Williams start to understand what had happened, along with the couple’s decision to reach out to the ACLU, and their ability to hire a defense attorney.  

AI has a blindspot: My phone’s facial recognition technology doesn’t see me, a black man. But it gets worse.

Information given at a hearing to Burton-Harris, who is running against Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, fleshed out the timeline, and that’s also baffling. The reported theft happened in October 2018. Williams was misidentified by facial recognition software in March 2019. In July of that year, a Shinola security guard who had only seen footage of the theft identified Williams in a photo lineup. In January 2020, Williams was arrested. 

Detroit police offered the following statement Wednesday: “Due to the fact that this case is pending litigation, we cannot comment further. The Detroit Police Department does not make arrests based solely on facial recognition. Facial recognition software is an investigative tool that is used to generate leads only. Additional investigative work, corroborating evidence and probable cause are required before an arrest can be made.”

The ACLU said Wednesday that it had only filed a complaint with the department, not a lawsuit.

Worthy notes that it was her office that opted to dismiss the charges once a review of the case revealed that there was insufficient evidence. And Worthy says she opposes the use of facial recognition software. 

“In the summer of 2019, the Detroit Police Department asked me personally to adopt their Facial Recognition Policy. I declined and cited studies regarding the unreliability of the software, especially as it relates to people of color. They are well aware of my stance and my position remains the same,” she said in a statement.

Worthy said her office requires review by a supervisor and corroborating evidence for any case that uses the technology.

“This present case occurred prior to this policy. Nevertheless, this case should not have been issued based on the DPD investigation, and for that we apologize. Thankfully, it was dismissed on our office’s own motion. This does not in any way make up for the hours that Mr. Williams spent in jail,” Worthy said in the statement. 

Burton-Harris says Worthy’s office and DPD have either delayed or ignored requests for information about Williams’ case. The charges against Williams were dismissed without prejudice, which means the case can technically be reopened. Burton-Harris says the prosecutor’s office should dismiss with prejudice — meaning the case is closed — but Worthy’s office says that’s not legally possible unless “the statute of limitations has expired, or there is a legal bar to reauthorization, such as double jeopardy.”

ACLU attorney Phil Mayor said that while this is the first known case of a facial recognition misidentification, he doesn’t think it’s the only case. Williams, he notes, had the resources to fight it. 

“I think they need to do actual investigative work and not rely on a flawed computer system that’s racist and biased,” Melissa Williams said. “I thought there were some steps before they came to your house to arrest you.”

Melissa Williams says she’s a fan of cop shows, where determining a suspect’s alibi consumes a lot of the action. But they didn’t ask her husband for an alibi, she said.

“And he had one! That could have cleared some things up.”

Robert Williams vividly remembers the day of his only visit to Detroit’s Shinola store, back in 2014. Melissa Williams’ brother had just moved to Midtown Detroit, and was eager to show his family the neighborhood, particularly the trendy Midtown shop.

The family — Robert and Melissa, their new baby, and Melissa’s brother and mother — walked down to browse the watches and bicycles the store is known for. He didn’t buy anything. A watch enthusiast, Robert Williams prefers to wear a Breitling. But it was a fun family outing. They took pictures.

He’s never been back. 

That Williams was charged with a crime — even though those charges are dismissed — will show up in a simple background check. He had to explain to his employer what had happened. And he has to live with the humiliation of having been arrested in his front lawn, for all the world to see. 

“We live in a nice neighborhood … my neighbors, one lady works for the Farmington Hills treasury office. The man across the street is an evidence tech in (the suburb’s) police department. Then the people next door to me are teachers. And all of it happens at 5:30 in the evening while everybody’s home. And by the way, I’m the black guy on the street, so when there’s a Detroit police car sitting on the street, they know who he’s there for.”

Robert and Melissa Williams say they and their children are still struggling to understand why this happened.

“I’m not a thief. I do fairly well,” Robert Williams said. “All I know for a fact is that I was arrested for no reason.”

Nancy Kaffer is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, where this column originally appeared.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit police facial recognition technology identifies wrong man