Last week, Derek Ingrams, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist, had his Hell’s Kitchen apartment in New York besieged by roughly 30 cops — in full riot gear — accompanied by police dogs, drones, and helicopters after facial recognition technology reportedly helped the officers make the identification for an arrest, an NYPD spokesperson confirmed to the Gothamist.
Following the subsequent public outrage, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said on Monday that he will reassess the use of the software by the New York Police Department (NYPD).
The NYPD didn’t have a warrant to enter Igram’s apartment; so after six tense hours of over 100 onlookers live-streaming the commotion and videos gaining traction on social media with high profile lawmakers, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea called off the operation, according to the New York Post.
Ingram, 28, was sought by the police for allegedly shouting into a police officer’s ear with a bullhorn during a June protest. Ingram is a co-founder of the Warriors in the Garden, a new youth-led group with a focus on peaceful protest and online organizing, and so many say him being targeted by the officers is no coincidence.
“He’s one of the most important pieces we have on the board,” said a fellow activist John Acosta, who showed up on Friday to support Ingram. “They’re trying to demoralize the whole movement.”
Ingram echoed the same sentiment as he spoke to the Gothamist following the police siege, saying, “We’re being specifically targeted with this [facial recognition] technology because of what we’re protesting and because we’re trying to deconstruct a system that they’re a part of.”
The day following the NYPD’s swarm of his apartment, Ingram turned himself in to the police with a crowd of supporters behind him.
Facial Recognition Power is Growing
The NYPD admitted on Friday that they had used facial recognition technology in their investigation against Derrick Ingram after reporters and protesters snapped photos of officers holding a report from the department’s Facial Identification Section with Ingram’s photo attached.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said yesterday in response to this developing case, “We have to be very careful and very limited with our use of anything involving facial recognition.”
“Those standards need to be reassessed. It’s something I will do with my team and with the NYPD,” de Blasio continued.
The mayor also claimed that the NYPD’s investigation into Ingram was “not approved by high-level police officials,” sparking continued outrage as activists wondered how this could’ve spiraled out of hand.
The NYPD has previously held that the technology is used to “gather leads on suspects for crimes” and that the department’s Facial Identification Section uses this software to identify thousands of suspects in cases each year.
The software comes equipped with a “massive internal database” of people’s mugshots to help the system generate possible matches. These matches are then looked at by investigators for reliability, the Gothamist detailed.
But Is It A Step Too Far?
What has continued to raise eyebrows is that the NYPD’s photo used to help identify Ingram appears to be taken from his Instagram page.
An NYPD spokesperson claimed that the AI Facial Recognition tool is only used to compare “a still image from a surveillance video to a pool of lawfully possessed arrest photos,” as cited by the Gothamist.
The spokesperson continued, adding that “no one has ever been arrested solely on the basis of a computer match.”
But, when reporters asked about how the posed Instagram photo fit into those categories, the spokesperson did not respond to the inquiry.
What has further baffled activists is that directly on the NYPD website for their Frequently Asked Questions regarding the facial recognition technology used by the department, a question poses, “Does the NYPD use facial recognition to monitor and identify people in crowds or at rallies?”
The simple and straightforward answer below says: “No.”
Pushing for Transparency and Reform
Following the widespread protests advocating for police reform, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the Police Oversight of Surveillance Technology, (POST) Act, last month which now forces the NYPD to disclose more information about its surveillance capabilities.
He previously opposed the legislation, arguing that privacy protections were “baked in” to the department’s practice, according to the Gothamist.
Also earlier this year, Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman proposed new legislation that would effectively ban the use of biometric surveillance technology — including facial recognition software — just until a regulatory task force is established.
Senator Hoylman’s bill is currently being debated by the Internet And Technology Senate Committee.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.