Dallas Police prepares for ‘game changing’ facial recognition tool, but privacy advocates raise concerns


The City Council’s Public Safety Committee gave a unanimous green light for the department to purchase Clearview AI technology.

DALLAS — The Dallas Police Department received city councilmembers’ blessing to use a controversial facial recognition software to identify people suspected of crimes, over opposition from the ACLU and at least one member of the city’s police oversight board. 

In a presentation to the city’s Public Safety Committee Monday, Chief Eddie Garcia said the department’s adoption of the software was undertaken with careful consideration and said it would speed up solving crimes amid short-staffing concerns. 

“I can tell you that it will be a game-changer for our hardworking detectives to have this technology,” he said. 

The technology allows detectives to process a still image of a potential perpetrator from surveillance video of a crime, for example, to try to identify a suspect’s name. 

The Clearview AI technology has come under scrutiny from the ACLU and others because of privacy concerns about how it collects images for its database and the potential for wrongful arrests driven by false matches from the software. 

“It raises really serious questions about what kinds of protections will be in place to show that nobody is wrongfully investigated or arrested because police trust a glitchy algorithm,” said Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project Nate Wessler.

Wessler said the ACLU is tracking at least seven wrongful arrests tied to facial recognition across the country, including at least one tied to Clearview AI. 

“Even with the best policies in place, you just can’t eliminate the chance – the very real chance – that innocent people will end up arrested or otherwise scrutinized,” he said, pointing out that studies show facial recognition software is particularly prone to error with people of color. 

Clearview AI counters that its software is among the best publicly available and said it recently received a patent for a “bias-free” algorithm. 

As part of its briefing Monday, police department representatives sought to assure council members the department would establish guidelines to protect from overreach. 

“This is just a piece of the puzzle,” Major Stephen Williams said. “Just as we work in a normal investigation when we have a gun or a thumbprint, that’s just a piece that we corroborate and further investigate in a criminal investigation.” 

He said DPD’s yet-to-be-finalized rules would prohibit arrests based solely on facial recognition and that every image match would be reviewed by at least two DPD officers who had received special training. 

“This is merely a lead in a criminal investigation, that is not 100 percent that it’s the individual and we’re going to go issue an arrest warrant,” Williams said.  

Williams said DPD would not use the software without a crime committed and will not use it for live-streamed events, protests, or other incidents it deems “first amendment activities.” 

However, at least one member of the city’s Community Police Oversight Board does not support the implementation of the technology.

“At present, the opportunity for mistakes and abuse outweigh the potential benefits,” said board member Brandon Friedman. “My position is that this software should not be formally adopted until the guardrails consist of more than ‘trust us.'” 

The members of City Council’s Public Safety Committee, who said they had been briefed by police in private in advance of the meeting, did not express any similar concerns publicly Monday. 

“It seems like it’s the right time and place for Dallas to have this and so I’m very supportive of this program,” said Councilperson Gay Donnell Willis ahead of the committee’s unanimous vote to allow DPD to move forward. 

Garcia said the department had the funding within its budget to contract with Clearview AI and would not require further council approval before implementation. Williams said the department plans to brief councilmembers six months after starting the program. 

As part of the city council presentation, DPD showed a “word cloud” of other departments that said it used facial recognition software, including Fort Worth Police and Arlington Police. 

Both departments told WFAA Monday they use facial recognition, but drew a critical distinction between their program and the one Dallas plans to undertake. 

Fort Worth, Arlington, and Plano Police each said their facial recognition software compares query images with a database of mugshots — as opposed to the Clearview AI model which uses billions of photos posted online — including to social media accounts. 

“It is only used for law enforcement investigations and we have had it for approximately three years,” a Fort Worth Police spokesperson said. “Images matched by this system are only used as an investigative lead and are not considered a positive identification on their own.”