Detroit Police Used Facial Recognition Tech To Falsely Arrest This Man. Now He’s Speaking Out.

As the nation undergoes a reckoning over a racist criminal justice system, Robert Williams, a Black man from Farmington Hills, speaks about his experience being falsely arrested by Detroit Police.

Earlier this year, Robert Williams of Farmington Hills, a Black Man, was falsely accused of shoplifting in Detroit back in 2018.

“If the technology is flawed and the policing is flawed, then the whole thing is flawed.” — Robert Williams, wrongful arrestee

He was wrongly arrested by Detroit Police officers who used facial recognition technology to pin him to the incident. Williams was recently featured in New York Times article describing the situation.

Now, Williams and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan have filed a complaint with the Board of Police Commissioners, asking that the department cease use of the technology. This occurs during a wider reckoning with the state of America’s criminal justice system.

Listen: Man falsely accused of robbery in Detroit due to facial recognition software talks toll on family.


Robert Williams of Farmington Hills was arrested this past January by Detroit Police who used facial recognition technology that wrongly tied him to a shoplifting incident at Shinola in 2018. He describes the confusion he felt when officers showed up at his house to arrest him.

“I don’t know what they think I have done, I feel like I live a pretty clean life. At this point, I’m dizzy. I don’t know what’s going on, just confused,” says Williams.

He says his arrest has taken a toll on his family, and he’s considered therapy for his six year-old daughter. Williams describes asking her recently if she missed him while she spent time at her grandma’s house. She told him, “No. I only miss you when you’re in jail.”

Phil Mayor is a senior staff attorney ACLU of Michigan, which has filed an administrative complaint in the case.

“As much as this technology is dangerous when it doesn’t work, it’s also dangerous when it does work.” — Phil Mayor, ACLU of Michigan

Mayor says the technology itself is proven to be racially biased, pointing to a study that included more than 100 facial recognition systems and the findings indicate that the systems are biased in terms of falsely identifying African-American and Asian faces 10 times to 100 times more than white faces.

“When you combine a broken and racist criminal legal and police system with a racist surveillance system — even when the system’s working — results are an exacerbation of existing pathology,” he says. “As much as this technology is dangerous when it doesn’t work, it’s also dangerous when it does work.”

Related: The 1992 Police Killing of a Detroit Black Man Is Remembered, Once Again

Bryce Huffman is a reporter and producer for BridgeDetroit and hosts the podcast “Same Same Different.” He has been reporting on how Detroiters feel about police using facial recognition software in their community.

“Detroiters feel they’re being watched instead of being seen and heard by officials,” says Huffman. “They see these cameras up and know they’re being thought of as potential criminals.”

Sheila Cockrel is CEO of CitizenDetroit, and a former Detroit City Council member who has been following policing issues closely in Detroit for decades.

“In Detroit, you call 911 and if you don’t fit the criteria for a ‘priority run,’ no one is coming.” — Sheila Cockrel, CitizenDetroit

“The culture of policing in America has been about officers protecting each other, secondly protection of property and thirdly protecting people. It is completely wrong,” she says. “The culture has to be fundamentally altered.”

“In Detroit, you call 911 and if you don’t fit the criteria for a ‘priority run,’ no one is coming,” she continues.

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