Springfield City Council Votes For Ban On Facial Recognition Technology

Jan 14, 2020

Springfield City Councilors want to push the pause button on facial recognition surveillance technology. A five-year moratorium received initial approval from the council by a 9-3 vote.

    The largest city in western Massachusetts has taken a step toward banning local law enforcement from using a controversial technology.

    By a 9-3 vote, the Springfield City Council Monday night gave initial approval to a 5-year moratorium on the use of facial recognition surveillance technology.

    With the first step approval, the ordinance can now be fine-tuned by the Public Safety Committee before it heads back to the full council for final enactment votes.

    Springfield City Council President Justin Hurst said a pause on the use of facial recognition technology is a “no-brainer.”

    " I support the ban because the technology is just not there yet," said Hurst.

    The American Civil Liberties Union and other critics of law enforcement use of facial recognition technology say it has been shown to be unreliable when identifying people with dark skin and could be used for racial profiling.

     Defenders of the technology say it speeds up the police work of comparing video footage and photographs with mug shots, driver’s license photos, and other databases.

     Around the country there is little regulation governing the use of facial recognition technology.  Springfield could be the fourth municipality in Massachusetts, after Northampton, Brookline, and Somerville, to ban it.

    " It seems to me every community should ban it until the technology is more thorough," said Hurst. " Right now people of color are being misrepresented at too high a rate for it to be an effective use of technology in law enforcement."

     The proposed ordinance was introduced by City Councilor Orlando Ramos, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, and City Councilor Adam Gomez, the council vice-president.

     Gomez said a local moratorium will buy time for the state legislature to put regulations in place.

   " We are taking appropriate steps on the municipal level to protect our residents," said Gomez. He said the legislature's Black and Latino Caucus is looking into regulations.

    City Councilor Kateri Walsh, who along with Councilors Sean Curran and Mike Fenton voted against the moratorium, said it might be removing a useful tool from the police department.

   "Five years in technology that is an eternity, " said Walsh. "There's an awful lot of moving pieces with an issue like this." 

    At a Public Safety Committee meeting last October, Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood said the department does not have and is not planning to acquire facial recognition software, but she nonetheless opposed a legislative ban.

    Mayor Domenic Sarno, in a statement last year, said he would veto an ordinance to ban the Springfield police from using facial recognition technology.