LA Police Commission Adopts Oversight Measures for Facial Recognition Tool

The LAPD’s promise of robust oversight for facial recognition technology in police work hasn’t quelled concerns from civil liberties groups that the tools will perpetuate harm in communities of color. 

Los Angeles Police Department headquarters in downtown LA. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Los Angeles Police Commission unanimously approved a set of oversight measures for the department’s use of a facial recognition tool that civil rights groups say is riddled with racial bias and doesn’t enhance police work.

The LA Police Department lacks its own facial recognition program but can authorize its members’ use of the LA County Regional Identification System (LACRIS), which compares images collected by officers against a database of nearly 9 million mugshots.

But law enforcement’s use of facial recognition tools has faced a powerful reckoning in the past year.

Concerns from U.S. civil rights organizations that facial recognition tools contribute to unlawful mass surveillance and racial profiling led to the technology being banned in a number of municipalities including San Francisco and Boston

Last year, Amazon implemented a one-year moratorium on municipal police departments’ use of its facial recognition tool, a move the company made in the beginning stages of the nationwide uprising against police violence.

The LAPD got swept up in winds of change, too. This past November, the department was forced to bar its employees from using third-party facial recognition software in police work after BuzzFeed News found department members used commercial software called Clearview AI without authorization more than 400 times.

At the commission’s meeting Tuesday, LA Police Chief Michel Moore sought to assuage concerns. He said the department’s use of LACRIS “strikes a balance” between making necessary police work more efficient and protecting people’s civil rights.

Moore said his officers’ use of LACRIS has solved murder cases and infused investigations with efficiency and that any criminal cases must eventually pass constitutional muster in court.

Liz Rhodes, director of LAPD’s office of constitutional policing and policy, told commissioners the department’s use of LACRIS will be limited to criminal investigations, cases including credible threats to life and in situations where police must identify someone who’s incapacitated.

Only LAPD staff trained to use LACRIS and authorized to do so will be able to access it and the officer will be barred from checking images gathered from security cameras and officers’ body-worn cameras, Rhodes said.

“The LAPD is attempting to balance competing interests,” Rhodes told commissioners. “The technology is nothing but a lead. It does not and cannot provide probable cause.”

But the LAPD’s promise that use of LACRIS will come with robust oversight and transparency provided little assurance to concerned civil rights groups who addressed commissioners Tuesday.

Mohammad Tajsar, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, told commissioners the LAPD has provided no evidence that using LACRIS or other facial recognition tools made people safer or helped reduce crime.

“Face recognition technology is a uniquely dangerous tool,” Tajsar said. “Even if advances in technology resolve racial and gender bias it will still violate the civil rights of people who are over-policed.”

After the commission solicited online public comment on the proposed policy, it received 943 responses from people, 931 of which included letters in opposition to LAPD’s use of LACRIS.

Over 60 LA-based organizations including Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Black Lives Matter and the ACLU called on the Police Commission to oppose the LAPD’s proposed oversight measures, saying there should be an independent audit of the department’s use of LACRIS.

“LAPD must not be rewarded for its years of hiding its use of face recognition with a policy normalizing and approving this harmful technology,” the groups wrote in a letter to commissioners. “Face recognition surveillance is a highly dangerous weapon that communities across the country are starting to treat as unacceptable in any form.”

Nonetheless, the five-member board voted 4-0 to approve the policy, with commissioner Maria Lou Calanche absent.

Commission president Eileen Decker, a former U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, said in the meeting she reviewed other municipalities’ concerns about facial recognition tools but that none contained the oversight measures used by the LAPD. Decker said she would instruct the department’s Inspector General to post public, periodic reviews of LAPD’s use of LACRIS under the guidelines approved Tuesday.

“The audit process is intended to have rigorous analysis of whether it reduces crime or wrongly identifies people,” Decker said. “If the data proves the system is not being used as intended, we will have to revisit.”

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