PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh’s police chief and public safety director have both said that facial recognition technology is an important tool for law enforcement to help solve crimes.
But some opponents of the technology contend that it’s not always accurate, and they claim the negative impact outweighs any positives. They point to several studies that have said the technology discriminates against brown and Black people.
Take the case of Robert Williams of Detroit, Michigan. Last summer, he spent 24 hours in police custody after facial recognition technology mistakenly matched his face to with that of another Black man caught on surveillance camera footage of a shoplifting spree.
That case, along with the studies critical of facial recognition technology, prompted Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O’Connor to introduce legislation restricting the use of the technology in Pittsburgh.
“There’s a glitch in the system. When you look at that and you see people of color and different ethnicities being discriminated against through technology, it’s not a fair technology,” O’Connor told Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle.
The proposal initially drew sharp criticism from Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich. While the city doesn’t have facial recognition technology, Pittsburgh police are allowed to submit video and photographs to the state’s Justice Network System that uses facial recognition technology to compare images to drivers’ licenses, prison mug shots and other forms of identification.
Hissrich defended the use of the technology arguing that it is like DNA or fingerprints and he said it can also be used to prove a suspect’s innocence.
“As much as it may identify a suspect, it may also clear that suspect. It’s going to give you a potential suspect but proving that suspect is just a tool in the toolbox. There’s a lot more than needs to be done to build a case,” said Hissrich, who’s also a retired FBI agent.
Hissrich said the technology has been used to solve crimes in the past though he wouldn’t provide specifics. However, Target 11 has learned that Pittsburgh police used the state system to help identify demonstrators who turned violent during the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer.
Target 11 uncovered a 2019 government study done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that is raising questions about the accuracy of facial recognition technology. The study said that algorithms falsely identified African American and Asian faces 10 to 100 times more than Caucasian faces.
“For me, as a woman of color, it’s just like I should not have to feel that I’m already an automatic target or suspect just because I have a little bit more melanin in my skin, you know than others,” said Danitra Sherman, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
The ACLU opposes the use of facial recognition technology, claiming that it’s discriminatory, an invasion of privacy and inaccurate.
“The data has shown that when it comes to Black and brown people especially African-American folks, Asian individuals and even women, (the technology) is horrible,” Sherman said.
Pittsburgh Police Commander Vic Joseph said that the study doesn’t tell the whole story.
“It all depends what you want to take from the article, what you want to take from the study. People that argue using facial recognition could hurt people of color, I argue just the opposite. In the city of Pittsburgh this year probably 80% of our homicides the victims are Black. 85% of our non-fatal shootings, the victims are Black, and probably this year, 23% are female, so taking that tool away would underserve these victims,” Joseph said.
Pittsburgh City Council ultimately approved O’Connor’s legislation. But one city council member said it doesn’t go far enough.
“This bill does not improve the health and safety of Black people and so I want to make it clear what we are actually doing, not much of anything,” said Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess, who ultimately voted for the legislation.
Public Safety Director Hissrich said he’s still not entirely happy with the legislation but said some compromises were made that should make it workable.
“I don’t know that we are handcuffed on it. There were some changes that were made after the report. Am I totally happy? No, but I think it is workable now, and it is what it is,” Hissrich said.
O’Connor said he stands by his legislation and believes it’s more about transparency.
“If you want to create your own system come to the public and talk about it. We’re not saying that the technology is bad and you know technology has saved a number of lives in the past, and it will in the future, but if you really want this come to the public, have an open dialogue and let’s discuss why this is important,” O’Connor said.
Allegheny County Council has introduced similar legislation that would require the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office to get approval as well, except in the case of emergency.
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