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False Arrest of Pregnant Woman in Detroit Highlights Racial Bias in Facial Recognition Technology

Web ExclusiveAugust 09, 2023
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Part 2 of our conversation with Porcha Woodruff, a pregnant woman in Detroit who was wrongfully arrested and jailed for robbery and carjacking. A month after her arrest, prosecutors dropped the case because the Detroit police had made the arrest based on a faulty AI, artificial intelligence, facial recognition match.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2, looking at a shocking story out of Detroit, Michigan, involving a woman named Porcha Woodruff, who was eight months pregnant when police mistakenly arrested her for robbery and carjacking. Six officers showed up at her home as she was getting her little daughters ready for school. She was held for 11 hours, then released on $100,000 bond. Porcha Woodruff says she started having contractions in jail, had to be taken to the hospital after her release due to dehydration.

A month later, after her arrest, prosecutors dropped the case, because the Detroit police had made the arrest based on faulty AI facial recognition match. According to the ACLU, Woodruff is the first woman, and at least the sixth person, to report being falsely accused of a crime as a result of facial recognition technology. All six people have been Black. Porcha Woodruff is now suing the city of Detroit.

In a moment, we’ll speak to Woodruff and her attorney, Ivan Land, but first, for context on the racial disparity that plagues facial recognition software used by law enforcement agencies, Democracy Now! spoke Tuesday with the artificial intelligence expert Joy Buolamwini, who founded the Algorithmic Justice League.

JOY BUOLAMWINI: So, even the latest research coming from the National Institute for Standards and Technology shows, in many instances, the worst performance is on the faces of Black women. And so, when you look at the data and what we’ve recorded on the performance of facial recognition technologies, it does mean people of color, women of color, Black women, in particular, are at even higher risk of these types of misidentifications. And this is from a government study. My own research, which focused on gender classification, indicated worst performance on Black women in a different type of facial analysis tasks. So, again, it is not surprising.

What we can do, however, is pass the act and issue those executive orders, so we don’t have anybody else being arrested in front of their family, detained and now having to go through legal cases.

In 2019, the government shared a study showing that African American faces and Asian faces were 10 to 100 times more likely to be misidentified. And I bring up studies from 2019, because oftentimes the systems that are being used by law enforcement aren’t necessarily the most up to date. And even if they were, it’s still problematic, because accurate AI systems, AI-powered facial recognition, can be abused. We don’t want to be living in a surveillance state.

AMY GOODMAN: That, again, was Joy Buolamwini, who founded the Algorithmic Justice League and has been following Porcha Woodruff’s case.

We are joined now by Porcha Woodruff, falsely arrested by Detroit, and her attorney — by the Detroit police, and her attorney, Ivan Land.

We thank you so much for staying with us for Part 2 of this conversation. Porcha Woodruff, in Part 1, you described in detail the arrest, when you were getting your daughters ready for school. I wanted to ask: What was your daughters’ response? Did they burst out crying when they saw you? They actually handcuffed you?

PORCHA WOODRUFF: Yes, they did. My daughters instantly started crying. They were like, “Oh my god! My mom is going to jail. What’s going on?” At the time, they were 12 and 7. They were in tears. They were shocked. They were scared. They didn’t know if I was going to get shot. That was a traumatizing experience for them. They did arrest me in front of them, as the recording — it’s the actual recording showing me being arrested and pat down by the officer that initially came to the door. They’re still scared. Like I said, they’re still dealing with the fact that I was arrested, and then being pregnant on top of that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you showed the officers you were eight months pregnant. Then you’re taken to the detention center. It’s a woman detective who comes to you, so at first you feel relief. Did you say — did the person who talked about this carjacking and robbery, did they say that the woman who did it was pregnant?

PORCHA WOODRUFF: Yes, that was my first question to her. That was definitely the first question I did ask. I said, “You know, was the person pregnant that you — you know, that identified my photo?” I asked that question. She said, “Well, yeah, no.” So I was confused from that.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s be clear: You’re eight months pregnant.

PORCHA WOODRUFF: Eight months pregnant.

AMY GOODMAN: At the time.

PORCHA WOODRUFF: Very much showing. Like I said, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, so I was a little bit bigger in this pregnancy than I had ever been before. So, it was way — you could see it. I was very visible. And then I also told them, while they were investigating me, that I was experiencing some pain. I was experiencing uncomfortable — you know, I was being uncomfortable. I let them know what was going on. And, you know, I’m explaining to them I’m eight months pregnant. “Who named me? Why?”

AMY GOODMAN: And then, after 11 hours and you go home, and then you go to the hospital, you have to explain at the hospital that you’d been arrested and held for 11 hours?

PORCHA WOODRUFF: I did. My doctor was confused. My nurses were confused. Everyone was kind of confused as to what was going on. Nobody could believe it.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Ivan Land in this conversation. We began this Part 2 by bringing folks Joy Buolamwini of the Algorithmic Justice League, whose specialty is looking at artificial intelligence and how it is actually racially discriminatory. And I’m looking at a piece in Michigan NPR that says Tawana Petty — that’s Joy’s colleague, of the Algorithmic Justice League, in Detroit — “who heads the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, called Detroit police 'overreliance' on facial recognition during investigations 'disheartening.'” And then, “Phil Mayor, senior attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, said Woodruff’s case is part of a pattern of [Detroit Police Department] investigations based on facial recognition that 'line up a pipeline to make false arrests.'”

Has the Detroit police explained to you, other than just mysteriously after a month dropping all charges, why it was, when they actually met the woman that they were arresting, they didn’t use some common sense and say, “We have made — we may well have made a mistake here”?

IVAN LAND: No, they have not. As a matter of fact, again, as the detective that interviewed Ms. Woodruff allowed her to be arraigned, we also attended another proceeding called a probable cause conference, where we determine whether or not we want to go to the preliminary exam at the probable cause conference. It was held by Zoom. I thought that, that day, that the matter would be dismissed, and the judge was, “No, you guys are going to exam,” which was scheduled for March 7th. So, the probable cause conference, which was for February the 27th, it wasn’t dismissed then, and so we went to the exam. But I got a call from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office informing me that the case was being dismissed for insufficient evidence.

But what’s really disheartening about this case is that not only did the detective drop the ball, as I would say, but they have a task force, a fugitive task force team, that goes around and arrests individuals. They try to get to their homes early in the morning so they can sort of, like, guess would say, surprise them. And in their hand, they have the arrest warrant. OK. Under this arrest warrant, an individual, 25 years old, said he was carjacked. Suspect, he had sex with her. Now, the individual would have told that the suspect was pregnant. So, not only did the officer in charge drop the ball, the six officers who arrested her dropped the ball. And she pleaded with those officers to check the paperwork to make sure the victim was pregnant — excuse me, the suspect was pregnant. Her fiancé then came downstairs, asked the officers to check to determine whether the suspect was pregnant. She even called her mother on the phone, put her on speakerphone, and asked the officers, the six officers that was there, to determine whether the suspect was pregnant. So, this is a problem. We have not received an apology. And I can’t explain to you how this happened.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to play a clip again of Joy Buolamwini, the second part of that clip that we played in Part 1, which goes to the issue of police departments’ use of this and how it can be regulated.

JOY BUOLAMWINI: I have been so excited to see the reintroduction of the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act. And part of why I’m excited to see this reintroduction is there’s an opportunity to put in protections. We’ve seen, from cities from Oakland to Boston, where I’m at, Jackson, Mississippi, to Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine, that cities have actually put restrictions on the use of facial recognition technology. So, what we saw happen — right? — with a eight-months-pregnant person being actually arrested would not have happened. And so, we see that local efforts actually do make a difference, but we can’t just hope you happen to live in a city that has adopted one of these measures. So that’s why it’s crucial we actually push forward with the federal legislation. So I am very excited to see the reintroduction of that act. And now is the time to push it forward.

I also think we can see executive orders — right? — one that would, say, prohibit federal funds from being used to obtain facial recognition technologies to be used in this way by law enforcement officers. Another action that could be taken is to create a national registry for facial recognition false arrests, and this can build on an executive order on policing that pushed to establish a national law enforcement accountability database. There is a campaign to end of facial policing. You can go to EndFacialPolicing.com, so that what happened to Porcha doesn’t happen to anybody else. I think, again, we want this to be the last situation where this is happening.

AMY GOODMAN: That, again, is Joy Buolamwini, who founded the Algorithmic Justice League. We started interviewing her when she was at MIT and at Sundance, when they did a documentary about her called Coded Bias. Ivan Land, she’s raising some really interesting points. Unfortunately, Porcha didn’t happen to live in a city where this is being regulated. She doesn’t live in Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon, or Jackson, Mississippi, or in Boston. The senatorial sponsor of this bill is Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. Your thoughts on what this would mean, and whether the Detroit Police Department is now looking at itself, and whether Michigan is looking at this case, given that Porcha, sadly, has made history, not because she wanted to, but as the first woman to be arrested under the misuse of AI technology?

IVAN LAND: Yes, I think this would be very helpful, the moratorium. The ACLU, which an attorney by the name of Phil Mayor — I believe you quoted him earlier — they have — he represents Robert Williams. And there’s another gentleman by the name of Michael Oliver. They have an injunction in front of a judge right now trying to get the Detroit police use of facial recognition stopped in its tracks because of its not being used correctly. It’s biased towards Black. So, I think any type of moratorium or anything that tries to stop the use of facial recognition should be done at this time. So I think that is great.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Porcha Woodruff, as I said, you’re making history here. But what it would mean to you if all of this was reexamined, so that another pregnant woman or anyone else won’t be falsely arrested, even when all of the commonsense indications on the ground are pointing in another direction, that they rely on this faulty technology?

PORCHA WOODRUFF: I believe that it would make a big difference. You know, had I not been pregnant, I may not be sitting here now explaining this to you. You know, I got a chance to explain what happened, only because of my pregnancy, which the whole situation, I feel like, could have been avoided if someone took the time to do a little bit more investigating, if someone took the time to actually listen to me when I tried to explain, you know, “This isn’t me. What is going on?” I feel like just a little intelligence goes a long way. And this type of situation, I don’t feel like, should happen to anyone, whether it’s a Black female, Black male, anyone, because that was a situation that could have been avoided. And that, itself, is an experience that I’m now living with and dealing with.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Porcha, you were eight months pregnant? How soon after you were held for 11 hours, arrested in a detention center, did you give birth?

PORCHA WOODRUFF: I gave birth to my son March 21st.

AMY GOODMAN: And it was a few weeks after your arrest?

PORCHA WOODRUFF: After, yes. Few weeks after the arrest.

AMY GOODMAN: I read somewhere that your kids said to your little boy, “You were in jail before you were even born.”

PORCHA WOODRUFF: That’s true, unfortunately, yes. They did make that statement, which I was. I was pregnant in the jail with my son.

AMY GOODMAN: What would it mean to you to get an apology from the Detroit Police Department?

PORCHA WOODRUFF: No, it would mean a lot. I don’t feel like there was any remorse for what happened. Like I stated before, in the beginning, no one would even listen to me. It was already like as if I was the — I was the suspect. They wanted me to be the suspect. Why? I don’t know. I still don’t really understand. But given the fact, again, like I stated before, I was pregnant, that I even got to get the chance to explain what even happened to me, because no one believed me. I’m not sure if it — was it because I was Black, I’m a Black person? But I don’t feel like that should have happened. And I definitely don’t want it to happen to anyone else, because I feel like now there is a lot of innocent people that have gone through that, or probably are going to go through that if something doesn’t change.

AMY GOODMAN: And how is —

PORCHA WOODRUFF: Something needs to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: How is your little boy?

PORCHA WOODRUFF: My little boy, he’s here. We’re still — he’s still in his developmental stage, and he’s here. We’re happy he’s here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Porcha Woodruff, wrongly accused by false facial recognition technology, and Ivan Land, the attorney for Porcha Woodruff. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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