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Springfield City Council Weighs Ban On Facial Recognition Technology


    Officials in the largest city in western Massachusetts are heatedly debating whether police should have access to a controversial technology.

     As the Springfield Police Department prepares to outfit cops with body-worn cameras, a group of City Councilors wants to forbid the use of facial recognition technology contending it could become a tool for racial profiling.

    While saying the police department does not currently have the controversial face-identification technology in its crime analysis division and has no current plans to purchase it, Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood opposes a legislative ban.

  "If a terrorist is wanted and the FBI puts that picture in a bank that is available to us and we have facial recognition and we can stop that person from killing people in Springfield, I would think you would want us to use it," Clapprood said as she spoke to City Councilors at a Public Safety Committee meeting.

   A proposed ordinance filed by City Councilors Adam Gomez and Orlando Ramos would place a five-year moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology by any Springfield municipal department.

  "I think it is important that we press the pause button on facial recognition technology," said Ramos. who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

  He said he is concerned about the privacy issues raised by the technology and also by studies that question the accuracy of facial recognition software when used on people with dark skin.

    Gomez said he wants to prevent police from misusing the technology.

  Noting the large number of surveillance cameras the city has already, Gomez said he feared police could use facial recognition technology to observe  protests and marches and  infringe on "people's civil liberties and civil rights."

   City Councilor Tracye Whitfield cited studies that show African Americans are more likely to have their images reviewed during a computerized search by police for criminal suspects.

   " I am a Black woman..and  I am not going to approve something that is going to target me," declared Whitfield.

   But at a recent Public Safety Committee meeting, other councilors pushed back on the idea of a blanket ban on the police using facial recognition technology.   Councilor Mike Fenton said the proposed ordinance is too restrictive.

  "My reading of the ordinance as drafted, (it) goes farther than just banning facial recognition in a live form, much farther than just banning facial recognition on the body-worn cameras," said Fenton,  He  said he would support restrictions on police using the technology in real-time, but would not deny police access to existing image databases.

   City Councilor Tim Ryan said regulations are premature because the police department is not planning to use facial recognition technology with the new body camera system.

   Only one city on the East Coast – Somerville, Massachusetts – has banned the use of facial recognition technology.

   San Francisco has banned it. The California state legislature is considering a three-year moratorium on the technology.







Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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