For some time now, the police in Detroit, Michigan have been expanding a program named Project Green Light. It’s a series of cameras, now numbering nearly 600, installed around various businesses in the city. They initially focused primarily on 24/7 businesses that attracted a lot of crime, like gas stations and liquor stores. But now it’s expanded to cover significant portions of the city. The cameras are tied into a facial recognition program which is used when trying to identify perpetrators of violent crimes.

This, of course, has people angry. Because for some reason, many people don’t seem to want to make it any easier for the police to catch violent criminals if it means that the authorities might be “spying” on them. (NBC News)

Detroit police officials say they’re only using facial recognition technology to identify suspects in violent crimes — not to spy on ordinary citizens. But, in a city that is about 80 percent black, with a sizable population of Middle Eastern, Asian and Latin American immigrants, critics have blasted the police for using technology that has been shown to be more likely to misidentify people with dark skin, without fully explaining it to the public.

“What happens when this software misidentifies one single person that doesn’t have the resources for a good legal defense?” asked Willie Burton, an elected member of Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners, a civilian body that oversees the police department. “Detroit is the poorest, blackest city in America. It should be the last city where we start implementing facial recognition.”

In what is hopefully a sign of things to come, Detroit’s Chief of Police is standing up to these objections and putting forth some common sense. First, they are not tracking everyone who comes in and out of a gas station or liquor store. And when a crime is reported, nobody is being arrested based solely on a facial recognition match. Human beings verify the identity of the person before any warrant is issued.

Detroit police Chief James Craig is alarmed by what he calls “hysteria” over tools he believes are making one of the nation’s most dangerous cities safer. He says trained police analysts verify the identity of suspects before they’re arrested, so computer misidentification isn’t an issue. And he warns that if lawmakers stop police from using the technology, Detroiters will suffer — specifically the victims of violent crimes.

“It would be tragic,” he said. “This is about safety. This is about the victims. This is about identifying violent suspects. This is not about Big Brother and taking that man who just left that store and we got facial recognition running and say, ‘Oh, that’s Mr. Jones who was arrested six years ago.’ We don’t do that. That’s absolutely wrong.”

Yes, it’s true that facial recognition software still has a ways to go before it’s completely reliable. It’s also a fact that most of the programs have a harder time correctly identifying persons of color and women. (You can read a pretty good analysis of why the software encounters these problems at CNET.) But as the Detroit Police Chief points out, nobody gets arrested based solely on the results of the facial recognition analysis. An actual officer looks at the photograph of the person identified and is able to tell whether the machine has made a mistake or not.

The way that people are working so diligently to stifle facial recognition for law enforcement is incredibly frustrating. It’s as bad as Baltimore turning down a free set of surveillance planes because people objected to video of public streets being recorded. Detroit may not be quite as bad as Chicago or Baltimore, but they have a serious violent crime problem. The police are using new technology to try to get a grip on this and make the streets safer. Why are these activists fighting so hard to make life easier for criminals?