How technology led to three Black men arrested and wrongfully accused

Second in an investigative series on the use of facial recognition technology
How technology led to three Black men arrested and wrongfully accused
Published: May. 25, 2023 at 10:55 AM EDT|Updated: May. 30, 2023 at 12:15 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Some law enforcement agencies using facial recognition technology (FRT) are not following agency policy because one does not exist, an Atlanta News First investigation uncovered.

“I swear to God, I ain’t never been to Louisiana,” Randall Reid told the DeKalb County police officer arresting him after a traffic stop along I-20. The officer questioned, “Who would use your name? Who would get you involved?”

“I don’t even know nobody in Louisiana,” Reid pleaded.

The 28-year-old was wanted out of Jefferson Parrish and Baton Rouge for stealing purses. But Reid said he’d never even been to the state.

Louisiana law enforcement used FRT - software that analyzes facial features comparing one image to another, to find a match or offer a limited set of results with similarities - to “match” Reid to a crime he did not commit, according to his attorneys.

Two years before Reid’s arrest, a similar case unfolded in 2020. Detroit police arrested Robert Williams outside his Michigan home in Farmington Hills.

Police used FRT to link the father of two to security video which showed a man stealing watches at a jewelry store. But detectives failed to thoroughly investigate beyond using the software, Williams’ attorneys are now alleging in a lawsuit.

“There was no questioning, no asking for an alibi,” Melissa Williams said.

“Arresting me for absolutely no reason other than whatever you seen on a picture, that’s just not real,” said Robert Williams, who now wants the technology banned.

As more police use facial recognition software, the search for suspects is leaving behind is a trail of new victims. First in a series.

A year earlier, police in Woodbridge, New Jersey, used FRT to link Nijeer Parks to theft at a hotel gift shop. In that case, the actual suspect sped away in his car, nearly hitting police.

“Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, shoplifting, eluding ... My jaw just dropped. I was like, where did you get all this from?,” Parks recalled.

In each case, the agencies which used FRT did not follow agency policy because one did not exist, or what did exist had no clearly defined standards, lawsuits claim.

When Reid was arrested, neither Louisiana law enforcement agency followed a facial recognition policy because neither had one on record, according to open records requests submitted by Atlanta News First Investigates.

The Cobb County Police Department does have a policy, and is one of two agencies in Georgia to use FRT.

“Just two people that look alike, that is not proof beyond reasonable doubt,” Chief Stuart VanHoozer said.

Only nine people of Cobb’s roughly 1,000 staff personnel are authorized to use FRT, and VanHoozer said two reasons are behind that policy. “Number one, the training is easier to do with a small number of people. Number two, accountability.”

According to Captain Darin Hull, accountability begins with how photos are matched.

“To us, it’s a lead,” he said, something to be treated as a tip, and which officers must vet.

Based on Cobb’s six-page policy, specialists must follow specific steps when using the system:

  1. Software-based facial recognition through a repository.
  2. Human-based facial comparison of candidates within a candidate list.
  3. Peer review of likely candidates in a candidate list.
  4. Investigation of a likely candidate to reveal corroborating or exculpatory evidence.
  5. Investigative supervisor review prior to taking criminal charges.
  6. Judge review of evidence prior to warrant issuance.

“I would use facial recognition with any criminal act because I trust it,” VanHoozer said. “I don’t trust it to make a case for me. I trust it to open doors of investigations for us. Then I trust our staff and policy to determine whether or not that is actually viable.”

The vendor for Cobb County’s facial recognition contract has faced criticism for “scraping,” or pulling publicly available images from social media like Facebook and Instagram. Experts have argued it could be a violation to that website’s terms of service.

ANF+ Behind The Investigation: Facial recognition technology leads to three wrongful arrests

Ciara Cummings takes you behind her latest investigation.

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