Council Preliminarily Approves Facial Recognition Regulation Bill

Sep 17, 2020

Pittsburgh City Council has given preliminary approval to a bill that requires council approval before city police can purchase facial recognition or predictive policing technology.

The tools allow police to use data to predict future crime, and to analyze images and characteristics of a person’s face to match them to photographs in a database, like the state's registry of driver's license photographs.  Critics worry using the tools could lead to potential racial profiling and privacy violations.

A majority of council supported the bill in a preliminary vote Wednesday, and it now appears poised for final passage next week. Still, Council President Theresa Kail-Smith abstained, saying council should move carefully when it comes to policing -- an issue that has been the focus of massive nationwide protests in Pittsburgh and other cities this summer.

“I’m going to be honest: I don’t like when it comes to public safety or public health,” Smith said. “I have an issue with politics being involved with that, because we have not seen great results with that. And I think we need to know and understand what it is, and what the effects are of what we’re doing.”

Councilor Ricky Burgess also voiced concerns about the bill, though he called for taking the city's efforts further. He said he felt council should simply prohibit using the technology, and that the current bill didn't go far enough.

“I’m in favor of banning predictive policing: This bill does not ban predictive policing,” Burgess said. “I’m in favor of regulating facial recognition: This bill does not regulate facial recognition.”

Residents who have spoken about the bill during the public-comment period of council meetings have similarly said the city should ban the technology outright.

Councilor Corey O’Connor, who sponsored the bill, agreed there were concerns about the technology's potential to lead to racial profiling. He said he is willing to have further conversations about regulating its use.

“This is a start, so there could a further conversation in the future, that’s the point,” O’Connor said. “If councilmembers want to talk about it, I’m definitely willing to have that talk.”

Council is slated to take a final vote on the bill on Tuesday.