Plan regulating police facial recognition technology in Pittsburgh gets preliminary approval

City council gives preliminary approval to police facial recognition technology plan

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh City Council gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a plan that would regulate the use of facial recognition technology by police.

“People think back to the movie “Minority Report” where we’re following individuals around, we have instant recognition of who they are, and that’s not the case at all,” Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said.

Pittsburgh doesn’t have the technology itself, but local police agencies can submit information to the state where it is compared to a database of driver’s licenses, government ID photos and mug shots.

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“This technology has helped solve numerous violent crimes within the City of Pittsburgh. It’s a tool in the toolbox,” Hissrich said.

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Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O’Connor introduced legislation that would require the police department to get the Council’s approval before using facial recognition software. It does not ban the current practice of using the state system.

“Right now, you are seeing statistics that disproportionately affects people of color, other ethnicities,” O’Connor said.

That’s one concern for Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess.

“This bill does not improve the health and safety of Black people. It does not ban predictive policing. It does not regulate facial recognition. I want to make it clear, what we’re actually doing is not much of anything,” Burgess said.

Public Safety officials have repeatedly stressed that the technology is not something that immediately leads to the arrest of someone without a thorough case being made. It just helps identify possible suspects.

In 2019, a landmark federal study found facial recognition technology is more likely to misidentify people of color and women. The study found that black people and Asian people were up to 100 times as likely to produce a false positive than white men.

Burgess' remarks led to a call for unity from the city council president.

“We need to come together, and we need to work together to show this community that they are, they are our priority,” said Theresa Kail-Smith, council president.

Burgess offered to rewrite the legislation, but nobody took him up on that offer.

Public Safety said it would continue to address concerns before the final council vote next week.

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