Tag: law enforcement

Should Police Facial Recognition Be Banned?

San Francisco is set to become the first city in the U.S. to ban police officers and other government officials from using facial recognition technology. Concerns about police using facial recognition are well-founded. Absent strong restrictions, police use of facial recognition poses a significant threat to our privacy and could hamper First Amendment-protected protests and other legal activities. Amid such concerns, it makes sense to keep the technology away from law enforcement until adequate policies have been implemented. While San Francisco officials ponder a ban we should consider if there are policies that could allow for police to use facial recognition without putting our civil liberties at risk or if the potential for abuse is so great that it warrants a ban.  

“Facial recognition” is a term that applies to a wide range of systems used to confirm identity via automated image analysis. While these systems have been much-discussed recently, facial recognition has been around for decades. Much of the recent focus on facial recognition is a function of its improved accuracy and proliferation. 

All over the world private businesses, law enforcement agencies, and national governments are using facial recognition systems. At its best, facial recognition can help improve security at banks and schools, help the blind, and make payments easier. But at its worst it’s an ideal tool for ubiquitous and persistent surveillance. In China, authorities use facial recognition to conduct surveillance and shame jaywalkers. This technology is a crucial part of one of the most extensive, intrusive, and oppressive surveillance apparatus in history, which the Chinese state uses to target the Uyghur Muslim minority in the western Xinjiang province. While there are many differences between the U.S. and China, we should keep in mind that when it comes to the degree of surveillance the differences between China and the U.S. are legal and regulatory rather than technological.  

American citizens and residents may enjoy more civil liberties protections than people living in China, but we should nonetheless be concerned about domestic law enforcement use of surveillance technology. After all, law enforcement agencies are already using facial recognition technology, and manufacturers have expressed interest in improving the technology in ways that could put civil liberties at risk.  

According to Grand View Research, we should expect law enforcement to spend more on facial recognition. In 2018, the size of the government “facial biometrics” market was $136.9 million and is expected to be $375 million in 2025.  

The scale of law enforcement’s current use of facial recognition is larger than many realize. According to Georgetown’s Center on Privacy and Technology half of American adults are already in a law enforcement facial recognition network, and at least 26 states allow law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches against driver’s license and other ID photo databases.  

Police Executive Order Invites Overfederalization

Yesterday, President Trump signed three executive orders to focus federal resources on fighting drug cartels, increasing overall public safety, and preventing violence against law enforcement officers.

Perhaps the most worrisome of these is the directive to “pursue appropriate legislation…that will define new Federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing Federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”

While law enforcement officer safety is important, there is no evidence that local or state officials have been reluctant to capture and punish those who commit violence against police. Moreover, there is little empirical evidence that more punitive sentences deter crime generally.

Twenty Years after Whren: A Crisis of Police Legitimacy

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Whren v. United States. The case clarified the constitutionality of the practice of “pretextual” traffic stops. The Court ruled that so long as an officer can articulate that a driver violated some traffic law, the officer may stop a motorist in order to investigate potential and wholly unrelated criminal activity. The case has effectively become a blueprint for police officers to racially profile drivers without repercussion.

Last fall, I gave a talk at Case Western Reserve Law School in a symposium dedicated to Whren and its legacy. The school’s law review recently published the article that came from that talk. Instead of putting forth an argument to overturn Whren, I argue that police departments ought to curtail or end the use of pretextual stops as a proactive policing measure. The Supreme Court’s ruling that the tactic is constitutional does not make it an ethical or wise tactic to employ.

Simply put, pretextual stops undermine police legitimacy by turning public servants into antagonistic interrogators. In practice, pretextual motor vehicle stops—much like the pedestrian Terry stops used in New York’s infamous Stop-and-Frisk program—ensnare far more innocent people than criminals. And most of the people who are stopped are black or Latino, further eroding police support in those communities. Police departments must establish their legitimacy—through trust and positive interactions—to improve their effectiveness and public safety. Overly aggressive and implicitly discriminatory policing practices undermine that legitimacy.

You can read the whole article here. The rest of this issue of the Case Western Reserve Law Review can be found here.

Update: I also wrote a shorter piece over at Rare describing what happens during a pretextual stop and why it’s so resented by the people who experience them. 

San Francisco Body Camera Plan Botches Officer Viewing Compromise

The Police Commission in San Francisco recently voted 5-2 to approve a body worn camera (BWC) plan. The plan, which one commissioner described as a “travesty,” prohibits supervisors from viewing BWC videos in order to find policy violations. It also requires officers involved in a shooting or in-custody death to submit an “initial statement” before they review BWC footage. Whether officers should be allowed to view BWC footage before making a statement is one of the most pressing issues in body camera debates. Unfortunately, the San Francisco BWC plan does not adequately address this issue.

Your memory isn’t always reliable. While many of us are confident that we’re pretty good at remembering specific incidents, it turns out that even our memories of notable and historic events, such as 9/11, are hardly as well-formed and clear as we might hope.

The legality of an officer’s use of deadly force depends in large part on the reasonableness of what the officer believed at the time of the incident. For instance, whether an officer who shot someone reasonably feared for his life, or the lives of innocent bystanders, will be an important factor in determining whether the shooting was legal.

BWCs, like other cameras, don’t have fuzzy memories. What’s filmed by BWCs is stored and, absent tampering, won’t change. The same can’t be said of police officers’ memories. This is one of the factors that has prompted debate about whether police officers should be allowed to view BWC footage of a deadly use-of-force incidents before they file a report.

I and others have argued that police should not view BWC footage related to a deadly use-of-force incidents before filing a report. A policy that allows officers to view BWC footage before filing a report would allow officers an unfair chance to exculpate themselves of wrongdoing. Officers could search for justifications for use-of-force that didn’t occur to them while the incident in question was happening.

Others could argue that police officers, like all human beings, don’t have perfect memories and might not accurately remember important facts concerning a stressful incident under investigation. Rather than being seen as an honest lapse of memory, the omission of crucial facts in a report could be portrayed as an officer trying to avoid the consequences of poor behavior.

San Francisco’s body camera plan requires officers involved in a shooting or in-custody death to submit an “initial statement” before he reviews body camera footage.

At first glance, this policy seems like a decent compromise between the two positions I outlined above. Such a policy ensures that officers can view BWC footage, but only after providing a statement outlining what they remember about the incident under investigation.

However, the “initial statement” required by the recently approved San Francisco plan is explicitly required to be brief and resembles a collection of basic facts rather than an explanatory report:

The initial statement by the subject officer shall briefly summarize the actions that the officer was engaged in, the actions that required the use of force, and the officer’s response.

These initial statement requirements are too narrow. As Alan Schlosser, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said, officers should fill out a full report before viewing body camera footage:

When we said there should be an initial report, we didn’t mean there should be a brief report,” he said. “When we support an initial report, we meant there would be a full report and then the officer would see the video and then there would be a supplemental report, with the understanding that recollections change.

Police in San Francisco will be wearing BWCs in the not too distant future. With the current plan in place there is still room for improvement when it comes to using BWCs as tools for increased law enforcement accountability. If San Francisco’s police commissioners ever want to revisit their body camera plan they could do worse than taking inspiration from their neighbors across San Francisco Bay. In Oakland, officers involved in shootings cannot view body camera footage without first being interviewed and submitting a report.

 

The Wrong Way to Protect Police Officers

Yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a piece I wrote about pending legislation in Pennsylvania to anonymize officers under investigation for use of force. The legislation is supposed to increase officer safety. A snippet:

Of course, officer safety is important. But there is scant evidence that specific police officers or their families - in Pennsylvania or elsewhere - have been targeted and harmed by criminals because they were named in use-of-force incidents. (While police officers have been the tragic victims of ambushes, including in Philadelphia, the indications are that officers are, as New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said in 2014, “targeted for their uniform,” not their actions.)

At best, these bills provide a remedy for something that has not been proven to be a problem. At worst, they protect officers with documented histories of violence and, ironically, give the majority of officers a bad rap.

Internal and criminal investigations are by their nature kept from the public eye, and for good reason. But the community should know if its public servants are under investigation for inappropriate violence and who they are. If one officer out of a thousand does something bad, but no one can say who he is, all officers fall under suspicion because the so-called bad apple is indistinguishable from everyone else.

As we saw in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of John Geer in Virginia, when police withhold information from the public about inappropriate uses of force, silence can seem like a cover-up. States and police agencies should look for ways to increase transparency after questionable uses of force, not put up new barriers to information.

Read the whole thing here.

This is cross-posted at PoliceMisconduct.net.

Ricin Suspect Used His Home to Elude Police

An interesting report from the Washington Post:

Dutschke went into hiding on Thursday to escape the media attention. The FBI and local law enforcement officials spent five hours hunting for him before his attorney revealed her client’s location.

Evidently, the attorney directed the police to her client’s home address.

James Everett Dutschke, 41, was taken into custody about 12:50 a.m. Saturday at his home in Tupelo, Miss., the FBI said.

According to the story, that’s the very same house the police searched earlier in the week. Note also the number of law enforcement agencies that were on the case:

Among the government agencies that joined the FBI in the investigation were the Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Capitol Police, the counterterrorism section of the Justice Department’s national security division, the Mississippi National Guard, the Mississippi Office of Homeland Security and multiple county and city law enforcement units.

And they needed the attorney’s help to discover Dutschke at his home?  As Glenn Reynolds likes to say (in jest), “we’re in the very best hands.”

Policymakers might just want to take stuff like this into account when the agencies say their budgets can’t be cut and that their surveillance powers must be “enhanced.”

Secret Cell Phone Tracking in the Sunshine State

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel provides us with one more data point showing the growing frequency with which police are using cell phones as tracking devices—a practice whose surprising prevalence the ACLU shone light on in April. In fiscal year 2011-2012, the first year Florida kept tabs on cell location tracking, state authorities made 171 location tracking requests—and apparently hope to expand the program.

The article alludes to a couple of specific cases in which location tracking was employed—to find a murder suspect and a girl who was thought to have been kidnapped—both of which are perfectly legitimate uses of the technology in principle. In general, if there’s enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant, the same evidence should support a warrant for tracking authority when the suspect’s location isn’t immediately known. In cases where police have a good faith belief that there’s a serious emergency—such as a suspected kidnapping—it’s even reasonable to allow police to seek location information without a court order, as is standard practice with most other kinds of electronic records requests. But the Sun-Sentinel report is also unsettlingly vague about the precise legal standard followed in non-emergency cases. According to a law enforcement official quoted in the story, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Electronic Surveillance “always seeks judicial approval to trail someone with GPS,” while the written policy only “instructs agents to show probable cause for criminal activity to the department’s legal counsel to see if a court order is necessary,” implying that it sometimes is not necessary.

The term “court order,” however, is quite broad: the word that’s conspicuously absent from these definitions is “warrant”—an order meeting the Fourth Amendment’s standards. In the past, the Justice Department has argued that many kinds of location tracking may be conducted using other kinds of authority, such as so-called “pen register” and “2403(d)” orders. Unlike full-fledged search warrants, which require a showing of “probable cause” to believe the suspect has committed a crime, these lesser authorities require only “reasonable grounds” to believe the information sought would be “relevant” to some legitimate investigation. That is, needless to say, a far lower hurdle to meet.

Police refusal to discuss the program with reporters is also part of a larger pattern of secrecy surrounding location tracking. As Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith observes in a recent and important paper, such orders are often sealed indefinitely—which in practice means “forever.” Unlike the targets of ordinary wiretaps, who must eventually be informed about the surveillance after the fact, citizens who’ve been lojacked may never learn that the authorities were mapping their every move. Such secrecy may be useful to police—but it also means that improper use of an intrusive power is far less likely to ever come to light.

Location tracking can be a valuable tool for an array of legitimate law enforcement purposes—but especially in light of the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in United States v. Jones, it has to be governed by clear, uniform standards that satisfy the demands of the Fourth Amendment.

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