Police Arrest Wrong Black Man After Facial Recognition ‘Got It Wrong’

by : Lucy Connolly on : 24 Jun 2020 18:42
man wrongly arrested after facial technology error 1ACLU/PA Images

A Black man in Detroit was wrongfully arrested after facial recognition ‘got it wrong’.

Robert Williams, 42, spent more than a 24 hours in custody in January this year after face recognition software matched his driver’s license photo to surveillance video of someone – another Black man – shoplifting.


Authorities say the thief took off with an estimated $3,800 worth of merchandise, with law enforcement officials using security footage of the incident to track down any suspects.

facial recognition technologyPA Images

However, they tracked down the wrong man thanks to facial recognition technology ‘getting it wrong’, and 42-year-old Williams was arrested in front of his wife and two young daughters, aged two and five years old.

Williams was taken to the police station where he was placed in an interrogation room, before police put three photos in front of him; two photos taken from the surveillance camera in the store and a photo of Williams’ state-issued driver’s license.


‘When I look at the picture of the guy, I just see a big Black guy,’ Williams said during an interview with National Public Radio (NPR). ‘I don’t see a resemblance. I don’t think he looks like me at all.’

He explained how the detective said, after flicking through all three photos: ‘So I guess the computer got it wrong too’. At this point, Williams pointed to the photo of his driving license and said that was him. ‘But that guy’s not me,’ he said as he pointed to the other two images.

facial recognition software leads to wrongful arrestSearch Results Web result with site links American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Williams then held one of the pictures up to his face and told the detective: ‘I hope you don’t think all Black people look alike.’ He was detained for 30 hours and then released on bail until a court hearing on the case, his lawyers said.


Lawyer Phil Mayor, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan, said:

They never even asked him any questions before arresting him. They never asked him if he had an alibi. They never asked if he had a red Cardinals hat. They never asked him where he was that day.

On Wednesday, June 24, the ACLU of Michigan filed a complaint against the Detroit Police Department, asking that police stop using the software in investigations.

‘Lawmakers nationwide must stop law enforcement use of face recognition technology. This surveillance technology is dangerous when wrong, and it is dangerous when right,’ they said in a statement.

Face recognition software at the LKAPA Images

The charges against Williams were being dropped, but the damage has already been done. Williams’ DNA sample, mugshot, and fingerprints, which were taken when he arrived at the detention centre, are now on file and his arrest is on the record.

Not only that, but Williams and his wife Melissa are worried about the long-term effects the arrest will have on their two young daughters. ‘Seeing their dad get arrested, that was their first interaction with the police. So it’s definitely going to shape how they perceive law enforcement,’ Melissa said.

Williams hopes his case is a wake-up call to lawmakers across the country, adding: ‘Let’s say that this case wasn’t retail fraud. What if it’s rape or murder? Would I have gotten out of jail on a personal bond, or would I have ever come home?’


If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact Stop Hate UK by visiting their website www.stophateuk.org/talk

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Lucy Connolly

A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).

Topics: News, America, Crime, Detroit, Facial Recognition, Now, Police, Racism, Technology, Theft, US


National Public Radio and 1 other
  1. National Public Radio

    'The Computer Got It Wrong': How Facial Recognition Led To False Arrest Of Black Man

  2. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan

    Wrongfully Arrested Because Face Recognition Can’t Tell Black People Apart