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Wisconsin Capital Bans City’s Facial Recognition Use

The Madison City Council voted to ban its city agencies from using facial recognition technology or information gathered from facial surveillance. The ban extends to the city’s police department.

(TNS) — The Madison, Wisc., City Council banned late Tuesday city agencies, including the Madison Police Department, from using facial recognition technology and also pushed back a decision on Edgewood High School's latest effort to install lights at its athletics field.

On a 17-2 vote, the council approved a new ordinance that prohibits city agencies, departments and divisions from using facial recognition technology or "information derived from a face surveillance system" with a handful of exceptions.

Following a national reckoning this year on over-policing in communities of color, Madison and other governments have scrutinized and limited the use of face surveillance systems by law enforcement.

"The technology has proven to be unreliable and faulty," Ald. Rebecca Kemble, 18th District, said of facial recognition, describing the ban more as a moratorium. "We also don't want this technology to be used to further worsen the racial disparities that there already are in our criminal justice system." Earlier in the meeting, the council rejected a competing proposal that still would have banned the city's use of facial recognition, but it would have carved out more approved uses for law enforcement.

The ordinance, sponsored by Alds. Max Prestigiacomo, Tag Evers, Mike Verveer, Grant Foster, Patrick Heck and Kemble, includes an exemption for the use of facial recognition technology to identify and locate "victims of human trafficking, child sexual exploitation or missing children."

The exemption was designed to allow the Madison Police Department to continue its current limited use of facial recognition, but not expand it.

The department's Special Victims Unit works with external facial recognition companies on trying to locate victims of child sex trafficking, said acting Chief Vic Wahl, such as scanning websites where victims of trafficking are advertised and comparing images to photos parents provide of their missing children.

Wahl said the Police Department's use of the technology is relatively new. This year, he said the department has partnered with facial recognition companies on 12 cases that ended with children being located and removed from trafficking situations.

Facial recognition uses computerized pattern-matching technology to automatically identify peoples' faces. The technology compares the layout of a subject's facial features to a separate image or a database of images that can be in the millions.

Public speakers in favor of the ban argued the algorithms and facial datasets behind the technology have difficulties accurately identifying children, people with darker skin tones or women; the use can lead to cases of mistaken identity; and it intrudes on privacy.

Backers of the technology said it is more useful than eye witness accounts and called it a useful tool for catching suspects of serious crimes.

Ald. Zachary Henak, 10th District, put forward a separate proposal on the ban that would have let the Police Department use facial technology for other circumstances.

In addition to investigating cases of missing or exploited children and human trafficking, Henak sought to create exemptions to the ban for finding missing adults, identifying deceased individuals or identifying "a suspect in a serious felony who poses a significant risk to public safety," such as a mass shooting.

"There is absolutely limitations that need to be put on this technology," he said. "But I don't think a ban on all other uses is the right way to go."

Henak's proposal failed on a 5-14 vote with Alds. Sheri Carter, Barbara Harrington-McKinney, Paul Skidmore, Michael Tierney and Henak in support of it.

Ultimately, Skidmore and Henak were the sole opponents to the final ordinance that was adopted. Ald. Syed Abbas was absent. The new law also includes smaller exemptions for city agencies and employees like the use of facial recognition to unlock cellphones.

Edgewood Delay

Looking to avoid a marathon meeting, the City Council chose to delay voting on Edgewood High School's appeal of a denied permit to install field lights rather than push forward with public comment and debate that likely would have stretched hours into Wednesday morning.

It was nearly 11 p.m. by the time the council voted on the facial recognition ban, and about 60 people had signed up to speak on the contentious proposal to install LED lights at Edgewood's Goodman Athletic Complex — a subject that has previously been debated into the wee hours of the morning during the years-long effort by Edgewood High School to make improvements to the field.

In May, the Plan Commission denied a permit for Edgewood to install the lights, and the private Catholic school quickly filed an appeal with the council. Edgewood had subsequently asked for a vote by the council to be delayed as it tried to work with neighbors on a compromise.

But Tuesday, it was the council's turn to further delay a decision, opting to either take it up during the next regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 5 or hold a special meeting later this month solely dedicated to the topic.

"I've got a whole pot of coffee brewing, and you're going to end the meeting," Carter joked.

The appeal is the latest chapter in a three-year saga to make improvements to the athletics field right off Monroe Street, which has drawn fierce opposition from some neighbors who are concerned about increased noise and traffic in the Near West Side neighborhood.

Under Edgewood's proposal, the school wants to use the lights for up to 15 games through July 31; 30 games in the 2021-22 school year; and 40 games annually starting in the 2022-23 school year.

Edgewood's proposal also calls for lights to be shut off 30 minutes after games, and no later than 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Other Items

In other action, the council chose to push back a decision on putting referendum questions — and whether to make the questions advisory or binding — on the spring ballot asking voters if major structural changes should be made to the City Council, such as cutting the size from 20 members to 10 and making the elected positions full time instead of part time.

The body also approved $3 million to lease and potentially purchase a former nursing home on the Far East Side to be used as a shelter for families experiencing homelessness.

Next year's budget was amended to spend $250,000 to lease and pay utilities at the former Karmenta Center, 4502 Milwaukee St., for a temporary shelter anticipated to be operated by the Salvation Army of Dane County. The council's action also sets aside $2.75 million to possibly buy the 36,192-square-foot building for future redevelopment.

(c)2020 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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