City commission questions LBPD on its use of facial recognition technology

A city commission questioned Long Beach police on Wednesday about their use of facial recognition technology, and some commissioners voiced their support for banning or suspending its use, at least until there are well-defined rules about when and how it should be used.

“Those will build trust, but until that trust is built up, everything is going to be suspect,” said Technology and Innovation Commissioner David W. Ferrell.

The commission does not have any direct power to regulate the police department’s use of facial recognition software, but it’s in the beginning stages of crafting a recommendation about how and when the city should allow its use.

Two commissioners on a subcommittee have been studying facial recognition since early this year when the city asked for guidance about it and other emerging police technologies, especially how they could disproportionately affect Black residents and other people of color.

The request came as part of the city’s Racial Reconciliation Initiative, which Long Beach created in response to the massive protests last year sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

Ultimately, the subcommittee recommended following the lead of more than a dozen local governments that have already banned municipal use of facial recognition. At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners began discussing the topic as a group and decided to schedule a further study session for some time next month.

During the meeting’s public comment segment, Black Lives Matter organizer Audrena Redmond urged the commission to swiftly push forward with a proposed ban and establish a process to monitor and regulate LBPD’s use of facial recognition.

“We have no oversight in this city of our police department,” she said. “And yet, why would we be trusting them with a tool that criminalizes people, that particularly criminalizes Black faces because the technology has a difficult time recognizing Black faces?”

LBPD Assistant Chief Wally Hebeish defended the department’s limited use of facial recognition software.

“It’s important to note that our focus is on the victims of crime, and specifically violent crime,” he said. “And if we’re using a system in a lawful and ethical manner, we’re going to use it to bring closure to the families and victims of those crimes.”

According to Hebeish, Long Beach police officers use facial recognition software only to generate leads in criminal investigations. When detectives have a photo or piece of footage with someone they’re trying to identify, they can compare it to a digital database of about 9 million booking photos maintained by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Even if the software pulls up potential matches, detectives must still confirm the person’s identity through other means before making an arrest or pushing charges, the assistant chief said.

“This is really using technology to make it a digital environment and make investigations much more efficient,” Hebeish said, “but not for the purposes of random surveillance or scanning crowds and holding on to videos and images of the public in the event that there was a crime to be later committed.”

Commissioner Parisa Vinzant questioned why the department’s current policy says the LBPD “may elect to integrate the use of facial recognition technology with its public safety video surveillance,” something she said left open the door to “concerns around mass surveillance.”

Hebeish said the department is still in the process of developing a permanent policy, but that specific provision will be removed.

Nevertheless, Vinzant said she also favors banning facial recognition technology because of issues regarding privacy, bias and civil liberties. Even with those unresolved concerns, she said, the department has already unilaterally decided to use the technology “without the knowledge of or input by the public.”

LBPD already uses facial recognition technology, but a fight’s brewing over whether it should

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children.
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