Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

williams

Robert Williams and his daughter, Rosie Williams. (Photo: ACLU of Michigan)

Flawed Facial Recognition: 'I Did Nothing Wrong. I Was Arrested Anyway.'

Federal studies have shown that facial recognition systems misidentify Asian and Black people up to 100 times more often than white people.

I never thought I would be a cautionary tale. More than that, I never thought I'd have to explain to my daughters why their daddy got arrested in front of them on our front lawn. How does one explain to two little girls that a computer got it wrong, but the police listened to it anyway—even if that meant arresting me for a crime I didn't commit?

That system incorrectly matched a photograph of me pulled from an old driver's license picture with the surveillance image.

This is what happened to me: As I was getting ready to head home from work one day in January of 2020, my wife called me and told me that a police officer had called and said I needed to turn myself in. She was scared and confused. The officers called me next, but wouldn't explain why I was supposed to turn myself in or what I was accused of, so I thought it was probably a prank. I couldn't imagine what else it could be. But as I pulled up to my house, a Detroit police squad car was waiting for me. The squad car swooped in from behind to block my SUV—as if I would make a run for it. One officer jumped out and asked if I was Robert Williams. I said I was. He told me I was under arrest.

By then, my wife, Melissa, was outside with our youngest in her arms, and my older daughter was peeking around my wife trying to see what was happening. I told my older daughter to go back inside, that the cops were making a mistake and that daddy would be back in a minute.

But I wasn't back in a minute. I was handcuffed and taken to the Detroit Detention Center.

As any other Black man would be, I had to consider what could happen if I asked too many questions.

As any other person would be, I was confused, scared—and yes, angry—that this was happening to me. And as any other Black man would be, I had to consider what could happen if I asked too many questions or displayed my anger openly, even though I knew I had done nothing wrong.

When we arrived at the detention center, I was patted down probably seven times, asked to remove the strings from my shoes and hoodie, and fingerprinted. They also took my mugshot and DNA sample. No one would tell me what crime they thought I'd committed.

After that, a full 18 hours went by. I spent the night sleeping on the cold concrete floor of a filthy, overcrowded cell next to an overflowing trash can. No one came to talk to me or explain what I was accused of—or why. Meanwhile, my family spent the night at home without me, scared for me and for what my false arrest would mean for all of us.

I eventually got more information after the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan connected me with a defense attorney. Someone had stolen watches, and the store owner provided surveillance footage to the Detroit Police Department. They sent a blurry, shadowy image from that footage to the Michigan State Police, who then ran it through their facial recognition system. That system incorrectly matched a photograph of me pulled from an old driver's license picture with the surveillance image.

I've since learned that federal studies have shown that facial recognition systems misidentify Asian and Black people up to 100 times more often than white people. Why is law enforcement even allowed to use such technology when it obviously doesn't work? I get angry when I hear companies, politicians, and police talk about how this technology isn't dangerous or flawed or say that they only use it as an investigative tool. If any of that was true, I wouldn't have been arrested.

What's worse is that, before this happened to me, I actually believed them. I thought, "What's so terrible if they're not invading our privacy and all they're doing is using this technology to narrow in on a group of suspects?"

I get angry when I hear companies, politicians, and police talk about how this technology isn't dangerous or flawed … If any of that was true, I wouldn't have been arrested.

Lawyers at the ACLU and the University of Michigan's Civil Rights Litigation Initiative filed a lawsuit against the police department on my behalf, but winning that case can't undo the damage to me and my family. My daughters can't unsee me being handcuffed and put into a police car. They continue to suffer that trauma. For example, after I returned from jail, they started playing cops and robbers games where they tell me that I'm in jail for stealing. And even today, when my daughters encounter the coverage about what happened to me, they are reduced to tears by their memory of those awful days. We just don't know what kind of long-term impact this might have on them; we do know that this was their first ever encounter with the police.

But my daughters can see me use this experience to bring some good into the world. That means helping make sure they don't grow up in a world where their driver's licenses or Facebook photos could be used to target, track, or harm them—or anyone else. That's why I brought the case with the ACLU and it's why Congress should stop law enforcement from using facial recognition technology. As it is, it's just too dangerous.

I keep thinking about how lucky I was to have spent only one night in jail, as traumatizing as it was. Many Black people won't be so lucky. My family and I don't want to live with that fear. I don't want anyone to live with that fear. Congress should do something to make sure no one else has to.


© 2021 ACLU
robert williams

Robert Williams

Robert Williams is an ACLU client.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·


PG&E Charged With 11 Felony Counts—Including Manslaughter—Over 2020 Zogg Fire

"PG&E has a history with a repeated pattern of causing wildfires that is not getting better," said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. "It's only getting worse."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Hold My Pearls': Debbie Dingell Lets Marjorie Taylor Green Have It Over Abortion Rights

The Michigan Democrat engaged in a verbal altercation with the far-right Republican lawmaker from Georgia on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Jon Queally ·


Dems Who Opposed Pentagon Cuts Received Nearly 4x More Donations From Weapons Makers

The latest passage of the NDAA "is particularly strong evidence that Pentagon contractors' interests easily take precedence over national security and the public interest for too many members of Congress," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo