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Baltimore City Council pushes forward facial recognition tech regulation for police

Kristerfer Burnett.jpeg
Bethany Raja
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Kristerfer Burnett, who represents southwest neighborhoods of Gwynns Falls and Edmondson Village sponsored a bill to ban facial recognition technology.

The use of facial recognition technology, even by police, may be limited in the coming months across Baltimore City. Council members discussed the bill during a public safety committee meeting Wednesday that’s moving forward in the process. Baltimore City Council already curbed the use of facial recognition technology in June 2021 in a moratorium which expires in December.

But those rules didn’t fully extend to the Baltimore City Police Department, the agency most likely to leverage such tech to help solve crimes, because it has been controlled by the state for decades. That may change after the general election if voters pass a ballot question that would allow for local control of Baltimore’s police.

Kristerfer Burnett, who represents southwest neighborhoods of Gwynns Falls and Edmondson Village, sponsored the bill. Burnett has been pushing for limits on the technology since 2020.

His first attempt two years ago, failed and didn’t make it out of committee. The second bill passed the Baltimore City Council but was relatively toothless when it came to regulating the Baltimore City Police Department because it was under state control.

Burnett cited a peer reviewed study published this year that found when the biometric technology is used by law enforcement people of color are more likely to be arrested and white residents are arrested less often.

“Not only were there an increase in arrests of Black and brown people, they actually saw a negative association with the deployment for white people, in that there were lower arrests made of white individuals after municipalities deployed this,” Burnett said.

Technology giant IBM sent a letter to Congress after the death of George Floyd in 2020 that the company would stop selling police departments equipment with facial recognition technology, according to the council member’s research.

Burnett said the software has been tested overwhelmingly by Asian and white men.

“So the software itself, because of that, sort of as the backdrop, is better equipped to recognize white and Asian males,” he said.

During public comments, Jake Parker, senior director of government relations for the Security Industry Association, said the technology is only used by law enforcement to generate leads in cases.

“Which then must be followed-up on and verified by other means,” Parker said.

Parker had some concerns about limiting use of the technology in some situations but agreed with other potential rules. The technology has benefited law enforcement, he said.

The Baltimore City Police Department argued in a letter that the existing moratorium has already prevented the agency from access to new technology.

“The current ban eliminated the department’s ability to acquire more effective technology as it became available, which we believe could have detrimental effects on clearance rates and crime solving in the future,” said Michelle Wirzberger, chief of staff for the department.

Wirzberger advocated for new rules to safeguard the public which could include mandatory police training, quality control checks and even reports to city council to monitor for potential misconduct instead of any outright ban.

Bethany Raja is WYPR's City Hall Reporter
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