Minneapolis Will Consider Facial Recognition Ban

The motion could signal a wave of reforms over the use of military and surveillance equipment following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
October 16, 2020, 1:00pm
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A Minneapolis City Council member filed a motion that could result in a citywide ban on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology. 

If successful, the motion, which was filed on October 2 and will be officially introduced Friday, could signal a wave of reforms over the use of military and surveillance equipment following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. 

As calls to defund and disband police forces reverberate across the United States, a coalition has formed in Minnesota to reign in intrusive surveillance technology and establish democratic controls over policing. The POSTME coalition, which stands for Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology and Military Equipment, lobbied for a ban on the use of facial recognition by police in Minneapolis, among other reforms. In regular meetings with stakeholders including elected officials, organizers from around the nation and administrative staff within the city, the group has drafted legislation and educated those in government why these changes are vital. Their first target is a ban on the use of facial recognition by the Minneapolis Police Department which is seen as a strong first step towards restoring the Fourth Amendment protections that have lapsed in recent years.

Munira Mohamed, an organizer with the coalition explained, “one of the most insidious aspects of facial recognition technologies is how widespread and indiscriminate it can be, which is made even more horrifying when you learn how absolutely unreliable and inaccurate it can be. The amount of racial bias shown in this technology is stunning and it has incredibly painful consequences for those falsely identified.”  

Numerous reports and studies have shown just how wildly inaccurate facial recognition systems can be. The Detroit Chief of Police said that the force’s software misidentifies 96 percent of the time, and public records from the force showed that it was almost exclusively used on Black people in 2019. The use of facial recognition has been linked to at least two false arrests in Detroit, and the lawyers of one falsely arrested man believe there are many more victims. 

In Minnesota, alarming investigative reports have raised concerns that law enforcement was rapidly adopting facial recognition and deliberately hiding their actions from the public. Law enforcement emails obtained by public records request stated, “this is not an application that I want advertised to anyone other than sheriff's office employees." This tendency to keep technology secret and deploy it against the public without any public oversight is the norm not the exception in Minnesota. This undemocratic process has been the case with the vast majority if not all surveillance technologies being used in the state.  

Emun Solomon is also an organizer with the coalition who said, “the goals of POSTME are really divided into two buckets for me. The first is to establish a future proofing. The second is to build a friction-less or near frictionless system to maintain community engagement in holding police accountable. This also extends to other cities as well as the state of Minnesota.”

The coalition includes members of the American Civil Liberties Union, Council on American Islamic Relations, Restore the Fourth, Communities United Against Police Brutality among other organizations. They met earlier this year for the first time, prior to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and have decided for the time being to focus their efforts on Minneapolis City Council and expand from there. From the coalition’s website, “Police are increasingly using surveillance technology and military equipment to further entrench racial bias into the criminal justice system, secretly invade civilian privacy, and wrongfully arrest innocent people.” 

“POSTME is all about bringing the values of democracy to the sphere of police powers. Not only do ordinary citizens not have a say, the police are often systematically shielded from any kind of public regulation or control and largely operate in the dark. The POSTME coalition is determined to bring oversight and accountability to surveillance and military technologies,” Mohamed explained. 

She notes that these reforms also expand democracy itself, “Not only do we want laws and structures in place that create greater transparency but we want community control of that process.” Surveillance technology is oftentimes implemented in complete secrecy and only after it has been in use for some time does its existence in a local community become apparent. The POSTME coalition wants to change that dynamic by plugging the community into conversations before new technology or military equipment is acquired by police.  

Now that the facial recognition ban is beginning to advance at city hall, the POSTME coalition aims to increase community involvement in these discussions and grow the political capital to further these goals. The group is planning a virtual town hall with Minneapolis Councilmember Steve Fletcher to discuss this potential ban and their next steps on October 22nd.