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West Lafayette City Council narrowly moves forward with ban on facial recognition technology

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West Lafayette city council narrowly moved forward with a ban on facial recognition technology

In a 5-4 vote Monday, the West Lafayette City Council moved forward with an ordinance banning the use of facial recognition technology. 

Facial recognition technology uses computer programs to compare individuals caught on video or camera to a database of faces. Research from MIT has found consistent racial bias in the technology’s ability to accurately identify faces.

Councilmember David Sanders sponsored the ordinance and cited some of that research in his reasoning. 

“If we want to confront Big Brother, this is a tool that we should not allow the government to have. It’s just that simple,” he said. “It’s problematic from a discriminatory perspective, it’s problematic from an invasion of privacy perspective.”

“This is trying to get ahold of a technology before problems develop,” Sanders said.

Councilmember Nick DeBoer said the technology represents a clear government overreach. 

“I think having the open ability to facial recognition and tracking individuals is one bridge too far in our republic to give that power to the government,” he said. “This is not necessarily a question about how good the West Lafayette police department is -- which I think I trust them with all intention -- this is an overarching question of whether this is an appropriate technology.”

Councilmember Kathy Parker felt that the ban was a step too far. 

“Rather than an outright ban, which I think is dangerous because it can prevent law enforcement from catching criminals, I would rather not ban it but maybe place limits on it,” she said. 

Parker noted that the Equal Justice Initiative, which advocates for criminal justice reform, did not list facial recognition on its list of causes for wrongful convictions. 

“I feel that if anything, though imperfect, it’s better than bad eyes and bad memories and simple flat out racism,” she said. “It’s more apt to protect our Black and brown friends than the human brain.”

Council Vice President Gerald Thomas briefly noted his annoyance with how the council was discussing the impact of the technology on minority individuals. 

“I feel this ordinance is somewhat overreaching,” he said. “We’ve talked a lot about how good this is for minorities. My question is, has anyone talked to any minorities about this and is it good or is it not good? Nobody has spoken to me as an African American male about this. I feel we’re using this as a scapegoat for a technology that has some useful purposes.”

Mayor John Dennis read a letter from West Lafayette Chief of Police Troy Harris, which said that just last month facial recognition technology was used to identify a suspect who had assaulted a Purdue student.  

“‘I leave you with this question: if you or a loved one were the victim of a violent crime, would you want the police to use whatever resources they have available to bring the suspect to justice? Thank you. Troy Harris, Chief of Police’,” Dennis read. 

“I don’t think I need to add anything to that,” Dennis said. “I do not support this and I will veto it.” 


Councilmember Sanders took issue with the chief’s framing of the issue. 

“It doesn’t matter how I would personally feel if a family member of mine was attacked in a crime. That is not fair game. That is not an appropriate way to try and advance an argument,” he said. “We have a continual extension of the invasion into our privacy and into our individual rights and the chief has pointed that all out.”

The ordinance will be taken up for a second reading next month. And the debate may not matter - according to Dennis, the council does not have authority over police and fire operations.