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Governor Baker, regulating facial recognition technology is a racial justice issue

Baker’s rejection of this section of the police reform bill is deeply troubling because this technology supercharges racial profiling by police and has resulted in the wrongful arrests of innocent people.

Photo illustration by Globe Staff; Adobe

Since the tragic and outrageous police killing of George Floyd in May, Boston Celtics players have doubled-down on our commitment to raising public awareness about policing and systemic racism, and advocating for sound changes to law enforcement that improve public safety and strengthen racial justice for everyone.

The stakes could not be higher: Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people in this country. A recent study found that 1 in 1,000 Black men in the United States will be killed by police. And beyond the killing of civilians, police continue to be a permanent and oppressive fixture in communities of color, resulting in daily harassment and targeting of Black and brown people through unnecessary and disproportionate stops and searches, citations, and arrests.


Despite our positions and profiles as professional athletes, we are not immune to racial profiling and discriminatory policing. Police violence and racism are unfortunately all too familiar for many players of color.

This bias against Black people and other people of color is baked into the criminal legal system, and it’s perpetuated at every level, including the tools that police departments use. That’s why we were disappointed to see that Governor Charlie Baker, in his amendments to the police reform legislation, removed the bill’s proposed regulations of government use of facial recognition technology. Baker’s rejection is deeply troubling because this technology supercharges racial profiling by police and has resulted in the wrongful arrests of innocent people.

Studies confirm that face recognition surveillance technology is flawed and biased, with significantly higher error rates when used against people of color and women. The ACLU of Massachusetts tested a widely available face recognition application last year, comparing official headshots of 188 New England athletes with a database of mugshots. Unsurprisingly, 27 professional athletes, including two Celtics players, were falsely matched.


This has real consequences. One false match can lead to an interrogation, arrest, and — especially for Black men — even a deadly police encounter. Earlier this year, Detroit police arrested Robert Williams, a Black man, on his front lawn in front of his wife and two young daughters. He was locked up for nearly 30 hours. His crime? Police used face recognition software and erroneously matched Williams with someone suspected of theft more than a year earlier. The false arrest disrupted his family life, resulted in his unjustified jailing, and violated all norms of reasonable policing. The charges were eventually dropped, but Williams and his family were left traumatized.

Williams’s wrongful arrest due to facial recognition technology made national news. But he’s not the only Black man wrongfully arrested due to racially biased, unregulated facial recognition technology. There’s nothing to stop the same thing from happening again. In fact, it might already have happened; we don’t know because facial surveillance is used in secret, without any oversight. Even defense attorneys don’t always find out when it’s been used to identify their clients. That’s because police departments aren’t always required to disclose their use of the technology to criminal defendants.

Massachusetts lawmakers’ proposed regulations make sense for racial justice and public safety. By prohibiting government agencies from using face recognition technology to surveil people, it will prevent racially biased, discriminatory surveillance technology from being used to track us everywhere we go. In those rare situations where the technology might give police officers a useful lead in the investigation of serious crimes, the bill would allow them to get a warrant to compare images of suspects with images already held by the government. If police really think face recognition will help solve crime, let it go through the same process as every other invasive investigative tool. Section 26 of the police reform bill allows police to search images via the Registry of Motor Vehicles in serious criminal investigations and life-threatening emergencies to identify individuals suspected of a violent crime. This strikes the right balance — protecting both our right to be free from unchecked government surveillance and the government’s ability to investigate the most serious crimes.


Like policing itself, surveillance technologies are most often deployed in communities of color, severely diminishing people’s anonymity and privacy and putting them at potential risk.

We can’t allow biased technology to supercharge racist policing in the Commonwealth. The Legislature should return these important regulations to the governor, and he should sign the bill.

Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Kemba Walker, Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams III, Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye, Jeff Teague, Javonte Green, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford, Tremont Waters, Tacko Fall, Payton Pritchard, and Aaron Nesmith are basketball players with the Boston Celtics.