Cleveland Police Would Rather Discuss its Use of Facial Recognition Technology in Private

Public Safety Director Karrie Howard - CITY OF CLEVELAND
City of Cleveland
Public Safety Director Karrie Howard

At Cleveland City Council's Public Safety Committee hearing Wednesday, Public Safety Director Karrie Howard cut off a conversation about the department's use of facial recognition technology, asking council that they continue the conversation in private.

Ward 1 Councilman Joe Jones had asked the public safety presenters about the technological capabilities of the city's cameras. Cleveland's IT director, Roy Fernando, explained that cameras could be programmed to various levels of image-capture sophistication.

"Cameras and their acuity come in various forms," he said. "They can be programmed in detail, to actually do facial recognition and license plate capability. It's up to our deployment as to what we're looking for."

When Jones asked for elaboration — Is facial recognition in use? How is it deployed in particular circumstances? — Howard asked to take the conversation offline, a suggestion that committee chairman Mike Polensek honored.

Howard hinted that it would be unwise to share details of the safety department's facial recognition use, presumably because criminals would then use that information to their advantage.   

Critics of facial recognition software have reason to be curious about Cleveland's use of this controversial technology, which has been found to reflect racial and gender biases. In a 2018 MIT study, three facial recognition programs were found to have significantly higher error rates when they analyzed dark-skinned women than when they analyzed light-skinned men. 

In 2019, when the Washington Post reported findings that showed the FBI had access to the drivers license databases of 21 states, including Ohio, Attorney General Dave Yost paused local access until roughly 4,500 officers who were using the system trained on the weaknesses of the software that could lead to gender or racial bias.

The council committee hearing moved quickly to other topics, including expanding the jurisdictions of both the Case Western Reserve University and University Circle Inc. police departments.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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