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Wrongfully arrested man sues Detroit police over false facial recognition match

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The case could fuel criticism of police investigators’ use of a controversial technology that has been shown to perform worse on people of color A Michigan man has sued Detroit police after he was wrongfully arrested and falsely identified as a shoplifting suspect by the department’s facial recognition software in one of the first lawsuits of its kind to call into question the controversial technology’s risk of throwing innocent people in jail. Robert Williams, a 43-year-old father in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, was arrested last year on charges he’d taken watches from a Shinola store after police investigators used a facial recognition search of the store’s surveillance-camera footage that identified him as the thief. Prosecutors dropped the case less than two weeks later, arguing that officers had relied on insufficient evidence. Police Chief James Craig later apologized for what he called “shoddy” investigative work. Williams, who said he had been driving home from work when the 2018 theft had occurred, was interrogated by detectives and held in custody for 30 hours before his release. Williams’s case sparked a public outcry about the fast-growing police use of a technology that research has shown often misidentifies people of color. His lawsuit is at least the third in the United States brought by Black men to raise doubts about the software’s accuracy.
The case could heighten the legal challenges for a technology that is largely unregulated in the country, even as it has become a prolific investigative tool used by police forces and federal investigators. While the software has been banned by more than a dozen cities nationwide, it has been cited in a growing number of criminal cases, including in the landmark investigation of rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Federal study confirms racial bias of many facial-recognition systems, casts doubt on their expanding use Williams’s attorneys did not make him available for comment Tuesday. But Williams wrote in The Washington Post last year that the episode had left him deeply shaken, in part because his young daughters had watched him get handcuffed in his driveway and put into a police car after returning home 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.”

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