By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Despite concern from citizens about software for the police department that they say could include facial recognition, the Birmingham City Council approved an agreement to purchase the software on an 8-1 vote.
Mayor Randall Woodfin repeatedly assured the council and the public that the $1.3 million contract with Motorola does not include using facial recognition. “I have stated many times the City of Birmingham is not investing in facial recognition software now or anytime during my administration,” Woodfin said.
City officials pointed to language in the contract that says, “facial recognition capabilities will not be deployed as part of this project” and that a change order would be required to add facial recognition. Officials also say the software is capable of feeding video and pictures of crime in progress to Birmingham Police Headquarters.
Citizens, however, still had concerns.
“We are already living in a harsh political and racial climate that is putting great stress on everybody,” said Amber Carter, a resident. “The last thing the city of Birmingham needs is for more unjust profiling and arrests of the people of Birmingham that leaves tension, strain and anxiety.”
Carter said facial recognition is a method of identifying or verifying an individual using their face which has “proven to be a very inaccurate method that has negatively affected African Americans and immigrants.”
Rob Burton, with the People’s Budget Coalition of Birmingham and a Glen Iris neighborhood officer said public safety focus should be on more than the software. One of the priorities should be an investment in mental health care “so if we want to address public health and public safety, we have to invest in the people’s priorities which includes alternative criminal justice models and mental health care,” he said.
Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, the lone vote against, said he had “reservations” about the contract.
“When we go out into our communities and hear from residents, very consistently people are asking us to ensure crime enforcement is being done and if I’m being completely honest, BPD leaves a lot left to be desired,” he said.
Councilors who voted in favor of the contract said constituents have asked for more effective policing.
“The vast majority of people that I’ve heard from want more police protection, more police and more ways of dealing with crime,” said Councilor Valerie Abbott. “. . . I’m in favor of cameras but I’m not in favor of facial recognition, which is not in this contract.”
Councilor Hunter Williams, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said the software is another tool for the police department.
“In my district… everyone is asking for better policing, increased response… these are simple technology fixes that increase police presence and their effectiveness,” he said. “It has been abundantly clear by the law department, the contract and the mayor that this does not include facial recognition.”
Councilor Steven Hoyt suggested an ordinance to make sure the software is being used properly. “For me, I’ve lost family members to crime . . . . and if we had had this kind of technology we might would’ve solved his case… we have to think beyond where we are,” he said.