Facial recognition gets it all wrong in Michigan arrest

On Behalf of | Jul 13, 2020 | Criminal Defense

Robert Williams was standing on the front lawn of his Farmington Hills house with his wife and two young daughters when police pulled up, cuffed him and put him in the back of a squad car. His wife asked where he was being taken.

“Google it,” an officer responded, as the little girls, 2 and 5 years old, cried.

As it turned out, Williams, 42, had been arrested for stealing $3,800 worth of watches from a Detroit store.

Officers investigating the theft had run the video image of the suspect through facial recognition software and the computer had matched the suspect to Williams’ Michigan driver’s license photo.

When police took Williams to an interrogation room, they showed him his license and two surveillance camera images of the suspect. He told NPR that he acknowledged that that was indeed his driver’s license photo. ” ‘But that guy’s not me,’ ” he told the officers, as he pointed at the other images.

Williams said he picked up the image of the suspect, held it to his face and said, “I hope you don’t think all Black people look alike.”

He was held in custody for 30 hours before his release on bail. At a court hearing on his case, a Wayne County prosecutor said there was insufficient evidence against Williams and that charges were being dropped.

According to civil rights experts, Williams is the first documented case of wrongful arrest based on a false positive by facial recognition technology. Even worse, NPR says its review of case documents show that police relied solely on the tech and had no other evidence tying Williams to the crime.

An ACLU attorney said police failed to ask any questions before arresting Williams. They never asked where he was that day, if he had an alibi, or whether he had a St. Louis Cardinals hat like the one the suspect wore in the surveillance video. (Spoiler alert: Williams is a Detroit native who would never wear a Cards’ hat.)

Since the arrest, Detroit police have announced a new policy: only still photos can be run through facial recognition software (no more surveillance tapes) and the technology will only be used in violent crime cases. In addition, the Detroit Police Department told NPR that the software will only be used to generate leads. Arrests will only come after investigative work, the establishment of probable cause and the uncovering of corroborating evidence.