Detroit Police arrested a man based on facial recognition. But they got it wrong.
Robert Williams of Farmington Hills was arrested and held for more than a day in January, on larceny charges that he stole Shinola watches from a downtown Detroit store.
But Williams says he was innocent, and the only evidence police ever had against him was a facial recognition technology “match” of his old driver’s license photo against grainy surveillance footage of the real thief.
Williams says the two actually have little in common except that both are large Black men. And critics of facial recognition say Williams’ case highlights the many problems with police use of the technology—from an over-reliance on algorithmic identifications at the expense of rigorous police work, to its frequent misidentification of people of color.
A false arrest and long detention, with little explanation
Here’s how Williams’ case played out.
On January 9, 2020, Williams’ wife Melissa received a call that police were looking for her husband.
“They said it was about the incident that happened in Farmington Hills in 2018, and that they were trying to avoid making a scene and that he just needed to turn himself in,” Melissa Williams said. “And I said I didn't think it was real. I said, ‘What are you even talking about?’ And they just couldn't tell me anything.”
Williams, 42, a logistics coordinator for an automotive supplier, was at work at the time. Melissa called him to let him know about the phone call, but warned she thought it might be a prank. Williams said he assumed it was, even when police called him on his own phone—still refusing to discuss the nature of the supposed charges.
“The guy is like, ‘Is this Rob?’ And I'm like, ‘Who is this? He’s like, ‘It’s Detective, blah, blah, blah. I need you to come turn yourself in,’” Williams recalled. “And I was like, ‘Turn myself in for what?’ And he’s like, ‘I can't tell you that.’”
But when Williams arrived back home, Detroit police were there, and quickly moved to arrest him. Williams asked them if they had a warrant. One of the officers returned with a warrant for felony larceny.
“I’m like, ‘For stealing? You’ve got the wrong person,’” Williams said he told the officers.
Meanwhile, Melissa was standing in front of the house with their younger daughter. When their older daughter came out of the house, Williams told her to stay inside: “She’s standing behind her Mama, saying ‘What’s going on, Daddy?’ I said, ‘Go inside. They’re just making a mistake.’”
Melissa asked where officers were taking him. They told her the Detroit Detention Center, and when Melissa asked for an address and more information, they told her: “Google it.”
On the ride down to the detention center, and even after he was booked, fingerprinted, and had mug shots taken, Williams said he still had no idea about the exact nature of the charges. That wasn’t revealed until after he was initially arraigned, pleading not guilty to the larceny charges. Then, officers took him into a room and began interrogating him.
Williams said they put three pieces of paper face-down on a table, and asked: “’Are you ready to make a statement?’ I said, 'no, why would I make a statement against myself?'”
“His first question was, ‘When was the last time you were in a Shinola store?’ I said, ‘2014.’ He turned the paper over, and he says, ‘So that’s not you?’ And I looked at the paper and I said, ‘No, that’s not me.’
“So he turns another piece of paper over and says, ‘So I guess that’s not you either.’ [It was the same picture as the first one blown up.] I said, ‘I hope you don’t think all Black people look alike.’ At this point I’m upset. He picks up this third sheet, flips it over and says, ‘So the computer got it wrong too.’ So I looked at it, and it’s a side-by-side of my driver’s license—not my current driver’s license though, my previous driver’s license—and a different photo of that guy outside of a store, like he was caught on another camera somewhere downtown. So I’m like ‘No, man, that’s not me!’”
Williams said at this point, the officers seemed to realize this might all be a mistake. But Williams said they told him: “We’re not detectives on your case, so we can’t drop these charges,” and sent him back to his cell.
Williams saw the judge again, who set a personal bond for him. But he wasn’t released until around 9 p.m. on January 10, around 30 hours after he was arrested.
A troubling backstory
According to the ACLU of Michigan, in a written complaint to the Detroit Police Department, this is the story behind Williams’ arrest:
The story of Mr. Williams’ improper arrest began—unbeknownst to him and his family—in October 2018 when a store guard at a Shinola store in Detroit saw footage of an unidentified Black man shoplifting five watches. Video surveillance captured images of the suspect, who was dressed, among other things, in a St. Louis Cardinals hat. Mr. Williams, a lifelong resident of the Detroit area, owns no such hat, and is not a Cardinals fan. He’s not even a baseball fan. He is, however, Black. DPD officers apparently did nothing to attempt to identify the suspect in the Shinola incident for approximately five months. Then, in March 2019, DPD arranged for a facial recognition search using the surveillance camera footage to be conducted. Using unreliable facial recognition software, that search falsely identified Mr. Williams as the individual in the footage. It seems that DPD officers did nothing further with the facial recognition search results for approximately another four months. Then, in July 2019—nine months after the incident—DPD “investigated” by conducting what essentially amounted to a rigged photographic lineup. DPD investigators showed six photographs, one of which was Mr. Williams drivers’ license photo, to a Shinola security guard—a guard who had not witnessed the incident in person and who had merely watched the same security camera footage that DPD officers already had in their possession. On the basis of an “identification” from the security guard, an arrest warrant issued—unbeknownst to Mr. Williams.
Melissa Williams reached out to the ACLU after reading up on facial recognition technology after her husband’s arrest, said Phil Mayor, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan.
“My reaction when I heard the story from Melissa’s complaint was, this is the story we’ve all been warning is happening all the time, but that’s hard to find out about,” Mayor said. “This technology is dangerous when it works, and it’s dangerous when it doesn’t work.”
Mayor said Williams’ story illustrates the dangers of when facial recognition doesn’t work. When it does work, he says, it can be used for police to surveil protesters, or other people engaging in constitutionally-protected activities that police may not like.
That would violate the terms of the Detroit Police Department’s facial recognition technology use policy, which among others things prohibits the use of facial recognition on people engaging in “First Amendment events.” But several elements of Williams’ story also appear to violate that policy, which was adopted by Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners amidst major controversy last summer.
The policy says that Detroit Police can only use facial recognition in pursuit of violent criminals or people accused of major felonies. That does not include simple larceny, which is what Williams was accused of. And it also prohibits police from making arrests based on solely on facial recognition-based evidence—other, corroborating evidence is needed.
A Detroit Police spokesperson did not reply to Michigan Radio’s request for comment on Williams’ story.
Victoria Burton-Harris, Williams’ personal defense attorney, said that among other things, Detroit Police are guilty of shoddy policework. “They simply used his matched image,” Burton-Harris said. “And from there, everything else they did was, you know, set in this frame that this was the person who stole the watches.”
When it was time for Williams’ probable cause hearing, the next step in criminal cases after arraignment, Burton-Harris (who is challenging Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy in the August Democratic primary), reviewed his case file. She said about half the file was missing.
“So we sent a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request for the missing evidence to both the city law department and the Detroit Police, as well as the prosecutor’s office,” Burton-Harris said. “And to this day, we still have not received that missing evidence or discovery…we to this day don’t know what [the police officer] swore to in an affidavit in order to secure an arrest warrant for Mr. Williams.”
The prosecutor’s office dismissed the charges against Williams at that hearing. But they did so without prejudice, meaning that the charges could be brought again.
The ACLU’s complaint to the Detroit Police Department demands that the charges against Williams be dismissed with prejudice, and that DPD offer him and his family a public apology. It also demands that DPD stop using facial recognition as an investigative tool; that Williams’ picture be removed from any database DPD uses, and that his mugshot be expunged from all local and state records; and that DPD respond to his lawyer’s FOIA requests in full.
“In short: police and prosecutors have both stonewalled to prevent the facts about Mr. Williams’ false arrest from coming out,” Mayor wrote in the complaint. “Mr. Williams’ and his family’s lives have been significantly upended by DPD’s reliance on flawed and racist technology, and by the incompetence and insensitivity displayed by the DPD at every stage of this matter.”
In a statement, Prosecutor Kym Worthy said that it’s legally impossible to dismiss the charges with prejudice at this point. However, the prosecutor said that, “Mr. Williams is able to have his fingerprints returned and to have the case expunged from his record.”
Worthy went on to say:
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. Any case presented to my office that has utilized this technology must be presented to a supervisor and must have corroborative evidence outside of this 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.
Burton-Harris said that in a way, Williams is lucky—he knew that the charges were the result of a faulty facial recognition identification. She said many other defendants likely don’t know that, and that while she now routinely asks for any facial recognition-based evidence related to her clients, it’s never provided.
“It is not uncommon for charges to be brought against someone, an innocent person, and then later it’s determined there’s no evidence to support those charges, so the cases have to be dismissed,” Burton-Harris added. “The sad part is, oftentimes people plead guilty to things they haven’t done, even before they’ve had a chance to hire an attorney to fight for dismissal.”
Williams noted that if the charges against him had been more serious, he likely wouldn’t have been given a personal bond, and would have spent more time in jail. “I would have been in jail until somebody said ‘You know what, that ain’t even him,’” he said.
Williams said he wants the charges expunged from his record, but his bigger-picture goal is “to prevent everybody or anybody from having to go through this.” But, he added: “They can’t undo what my kids seen, and what my mother-in-law seen, and what my wife had to go through.”