Birmingham City Council

Birmingham City Council Approves Software for Police Department’s Real-Time Crime Center

Mayor Randall Woodfin (Source: Sam Prickett)

Updated — The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to implement new software for the Birmingham Police Department’s real-time crime center, despite public concerns that the agreement could pave the way for facial recognition software to be used by city law enforcement.

The resolution will allow the city to lease-purchase rights to Motorola Solutions’ CommandCentral Aware and BriefCam softwares at a total cost of $1,315,659 over a five-year period.

Fifteen residents — several of whom had also vocally opposed Mayor Randall Woodfin’s FY 2021 budget — spoke against the proposed agreement at Tuesday’s meeting, expressing concerns that BriefCam’s capability for facial recognition could have a negative impact on residents, particularly Black people, who are misidentified by such software far more often than white people.

“I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations (such as) unreasonable searches and other problems that are present on the Bill of Rights,” said Joseph Baker, one of the residents speaking out against the proposal. “The algorithms have been shown to be faulty… Surely the forthcoming legal challenges that will be brought forth by myself and others will cost this city more than the $1.315 million that you are going to allocate to this.

“This will not stand,” he said. “We will not allow the city’s power and authority to be turned against the citizens of this community, because the people are the city.”

Woodfin argued that the purpose of the software was to integrate the police department’s existing data collection softwares into one system.

“You all last year approved and supported a real-time crime center,” he told the council. “If you want this real-time crime center to work, we need to purchase software that integrates all those existing softwares,” he said. “You’re not agreeing today to purchase any new equipment that relates to cameras.”

Facial recognition technology would not be used as part of the project, Woodfin said — adding that capability would require approval by the City Council. “The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition,” he said.

Woodfin’s comments received near-unanimous support from the council, even from District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt, a frequent critic of the mayor.

But Hoyt went one step further, arguing that the city could and should use facial recognition technology.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” he said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. If (the software) has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it… And we’ve got to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”

Several councilors reiterated that residents they interacted with at neighborhood meetings had consistently requested more police presence in the city.

“I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime, whatever you call it,” said District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott, adding that her home had been burgled the day before and that, without her own security camera, police were unlikely to find the perpetrator.

“We are making capital improvements to our police department because it is what our citizens are requesting,” added District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams. “I know that it’s challenging sometimes when you have people that are constantly saying ‘no more policing,’ ‘defund the police,’ whatever… The truth is, in my district… everyone is asking for more policing, better police response, and things that can increase police presence…. I agree that facial recognition is too much of Big Brother and too much of a hyper-police state. So be it. This is not that.”

District 1 Councilor Clinton Woods suggested that a separate ordinance preventing the use of facial recognition software in the city would “solve the conflict.”

“I think people are off as far as what the software is,” he said.

The council voted to approve the item 8-1. District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, who noted he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience,” cast the sole “no” vote.

After the meeting, Councilor Darrell O’Quinn told BirminghamWatch that his issue with the resolution was its funding source.

“BPD is utilizing a line of credit to fund this initiative,” he wrote. “The Council agreed to this prior to the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. The hardship the City is experiencing and that was manifested in the recently passed budget is very much a concern. Given the severe change in the City’s financial circumstances, my vote today reflected my concern for taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63M shortfall in revenue.

There were definitely additional concerns that factored into my decision, but the means by which we are financing this project was a major consideration.”