In one of the first lawsuits of its kind, a Farmington Hills man is suing the Detroit Police Department after being falsely identified as a shoplifting suspect by facial recognition software. A federal study released in late 2019 showed that facial recognition software misidentified people of color at rates far higher than those of White people. Depending on factors such as search and algorithm, African American and Asian people were misidentified up to 100 times more than Caucasians.
In January 2020, a Black man, Robert Hills, 43, was arrested after police charged him with stealing five watches worth $4,000 from a Shinola store two years earlier. He was held in custody for 30 hours, forced to sleep on bare concrete and never informed why he had been arrested. It was during an interrogation that he realized facial recognition software had wrongly identified him. He was later released on a personal bond.
In his civil suit, filed April 13 in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, Hills alleges a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights of freedom from unlawful seizures, as well as a Michigan civil rights law prohibiting racial discrimination. The lawsuit does not specify the amount of damages sought.
Hills wants police to stop using this controversial technology, calling it one of the most shocking things that ever happened to him. His wife, mother-in-law, and young daughters witnessed him being handcuffed and put into a police car as he was returning from work. The girls, then 3 and 7, cried after seeing their father put into the squad car.
The Computer Got It Wrong
“A computer thought he looked like a shoplifter,” according to the lawsuit. The surveillance video used by the police department is badly lit, with the suspect never looking into the camera. A detective had a grainy photo made from the video, and then ran it through the department’s facial recognition technology. It made a match with Hills.
During the interrogation, Detective Donald Bussa showed Hills the photo of the man inside the Shinola and said, “That’s not you?” Hills held the photo next to his face and said it was not him. He says Bussa told him the computer said it was him, but then said, “The computer got it wrong.”
Prosecutors dropped the case within two weeks. Both Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James Craig deemed Hill’s arrest “inexcusable.” Craig later apologized for Bussa’s “shoddy” detective work. Bussa is also named in the lawsuit. Craig added that the department does not make arrests based only on facial recognition.
Bussa did not bother to conduct the slightest investigation as to Hill’s whereabouts on the day and time in question. If he had, Bussa would have learned that Hills was driving home from work during that period. Simply cross-matching with cell phone records could have confirmed Hills was on the road.
Instead, Bussa obtained Hills’ expired driver’s license from the Secretary of State’s Office. He then added this photo to an array of five other photos and arranged a photo lineup with a security contractor who was not present in the store at the time of the theft. Instead, this contractor relied on the same grainy surveillance video photo. The contractor identified Hills, and Bussa requested an arrest warrant.
Bussa is also the officer involved in the only other facial recognition lawsuit filed against the department. In this case, Michael Oliver ended up spending three days in jail and losing his job.