Man gets $300K from settlement after being wrongly accused of theft, cops change facial recognition technology

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The city of Detroit will pay $300,000 to a man wrongly accused of shoplifting. And as part of a settlement reached with the man, the city will change how its police force uses facial recognition technology to identify suspects, 

Robert Williams’ driver’s license picture was incorrectly flagged as a likely match for a man captured on grainy security video at a Shinola watch store theft in 2018. Williams was arrested two years later in front of his wife and two young daughters on their front lawn in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills.

“We are extremely excited that going forward there will be more safeguards on the use of this technology with our hope being to live in a better world because of it, even though what we would like for them to do is not use it at all,” Williams said, according to The Associated Press.

Williams, a Black man, was held in jail for more than 24 hours and defended himself in court before the charges were eventually dropped, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the facial recognition technology is flawed and racially biased, noting that there has been a higher rate of false matches for Black people.


Robert Williams

The city of Detroit has agreed to pay Robert Williams $300,000 after he was wrongly accused of shoplifting using facial recognition technology. (Drew English/ACLU via AP)

Williams is one of three people, who are all Black, to be wrongly arrested after Detroit police used facial recognition technology in an attempt to identify a suspect, the ACLU said in a press release announcing the agreement.

Police Chief James White announced new policies last August, while the litigation was still ongoing, on facial recognition technology. This came after a woman who was eight months pregnant said she was wrongly charged with carjacking.

White said at the time there must be other evidence beyond the technology for police to believe a suspect had the “means, ability and opportunity to commit the crime.”

As part of the settlement with Williams, Detroit police will be prohibited from arresting people based solely on facial recognition results and cannot make arrests based on photo lineups created from a facial recognition search, according to the ACLU.

“The Detroit Police Department’s abuses of facial recognition technology completely upended my life,” Williams said in the ACLU press release. “My wife and young daughters had to watch helplessly as I was arrested for a crime I didn’t commit and by the time I got home from jail, I had already missed my youngest losing her first tooth and my eldest couldn’t even bear to look at my picture. Even now, years later, it still brings them to tears when they think about it.”

The police department will also do an audit of all cases from 2017 to 2023 that relied on facial recognition technology to obtain an arrest warrant. A prosecutor will be told if police find that an arrest was made without independent evidence.


Detroit police car

As part of the settlement, Detroit Police will be prohibited from arresting people based solely on facial recognition results and cannot make arrests based on photo lineups created from a facial recognition search. (iStock)

“Police reliance on shoddy technology merely creates shoddy investigations,” said Phil Mayor, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan. “Under this settlement, the Detroit Police Department should transform from being a nationwide leader in wrongful arrests driven by facial recognition technology into being a leader in implementing meaningful guardrails to constrain and limit their use of the technology.”

Mayor told The Associated Press that police can find a facial recognition lead and then do “old-fashioned police work” to see if there is any reason to believe that the person who was identified might have committed a crime.


Williams was represented by the ACLU and the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at University of Michigan Law School.

“We hope this groundbreaking settlement will not only prevent future wrongful arrests of Black people in Detroit, but that it will serve as a model for other police departments that insist on using facial recognition technology,” said Michael J. Steinberg, director of the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School. 

“We are also thrilled that Mr. Williams, who has become a face of movement to stop the misuse of facial recognition, will receive some measure of relief.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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