Beck defends CPD’s use of facial recognition

CPD needs the tool and doesn’t abuse it, the interim police superintendent said. Without it, the department would “solve fewer crimes than places” that do use it, he told the Sun-Times.

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Interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck on “The Fran Spielman Show” Thursday, January 30, 2019.

Interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck told the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday that the department needs facial recognition software to help solve crimes.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Interim Chicago Police Superintendent Charlie Beck on Thursday offered a vigorous defense of CPD’s use of a facial recognition tool that matches images of unknown suspects to three billion photos scraped from social media.

Clearview AI, the Manhattan-based firm that developed the software, has come under fire after a lawsuit was filed in federal court in Chicago earlier this month seeking to halt the company’s data collection and after a New York Times report detailed the privacy concerns its technology has brought to the fore.

But,Beck said Thursday the department needs the tool and doesn’t abuse it. Without it, Chicago Police would “solve fewer crimes than places” that do use it, he said.

“We are trying to identify people that have committed crimes. This system is only used when there is a predicate criminal charge. When there is an unidentified individual tied to that predicate crime and we’re searching for their identity,” Beck said.

“When that identity comes to light, we have to use a completely different means by which to make that case. The facial recognition piece falls by the wayside. It’s a pointer system. Without all of that other evidence — be it DNA, be it fingerprints, be it witness ID — there is no case.”

Karen Sheley, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, has argued it was an “incredible absence of judgment” for CPD to sign a contract to use the Clearview software without any public input. Sheley wants the department to “stop using it immediately.”

Beck begs to differ.

He argued the privacy debate about facial recognition stems more from a “misunderstanding” about the system than any abuse of it.

“It’s never used as the sole tool for making an arrest. It’s a pointer system. It is a clue. It has to be backed up by other articles of evidence that, in and of themselves, support a prosecution,” he said.

“We have a very limited amount of people who are able to use the facial recognition system that has social media access. We don’t use it in crowd-sourcing. We don’t use it during First Amendment activities. ... CPD is certainly not using it in any way that is beyond the scope of the professional standard.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Beck also:

• Blamed a historic “lack of accountability” for runaway overtime that saw the Chicago Police Department spend $131.2 million through Nov. 30, matching the 12-month total for the year before.

“Overtime was used to fill holes that were deemed important at the time, but were maybe fiscally imprudent,” the superintendent said.

Pointing to the massive re-organization announced Thursday, Beck said, “As soon as we determine exactly how many people are in each command, we will give them all an individual budget. That budget will be the subject of Compstat and they will be held to it. When I was the chief in L.A. we certainly had times when we went over, but it was always over with an explanation. I stayed within my overtime budget every year. “

• Acknowledged the nearly-three-year wait for a new police contract has exasperated rank-and-file police officers and hurt morale as much as the merit promotion system he has already abolished.

“There’s a number of things that Chicago needs to address in order to have a workforce that believes it’s appreciated. One of `em is timely contracts. The other is timely exams for promotion that are considered fair,” he said.

“The mayor and I have had this discussion. I know she believes in both of those things and is working towards them. … There are things we need to do. Having a contract is one of them.”

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• Maintained that the “culture that I come from doesn’t allow a cooling-off period before an interview” with a police officer involved in a shooting. In Los Angeles, anonymous complaints against police officers are also accepted, he said.

The Task Force on Police Accountability, co-chaired by then-Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, has demanded similar changes to a police contract that, she said, “codifies the code of silence” and makes it “easier for officers to lie by giving them 24 hours before providing a statement after a shooting and includes “impediments to accountability” that prohibit anonymous complaints, allow officers to change statements after reviewing video and requires sworn affidavits.

“It isn’t whether you collect more false allegations or not. It’s whether you look at every complaint and make a determination on it. ... What you don’t want is a system where complaints can fall through the cracks because you’ve taken steps to prohibit them,” he said.

“Sometimes, anonymous complaints are accurate. Maybe the vast majority of the time they’re not. But sometimes, they are. To completely remove them from the process might be ill advised.”

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