South Florida Sun-Sentinel by Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson and Marc Freeman
June 26, 2021
Protesters in Boca Raton fell silent, then erupted in cheers, as a line of police officers in riot gear took a knee with them. Such surprising images of solidarity reigned in the usually peaceful, sometimes chaotic protests in South Florida following George Floyd’s murder one year ago.
Behind the scenes, however, police photographed protesters. And they ran protest-related images through a vast and unregulated facial recognition database, records show. That’s like going through a crowd and inspecting people’s driver’s licenses, which would almost certainly be prohibited as an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Pulitzer Center journalists used Florida’s public records law to access facial recognition searches local police ran as demonstrations cascaded across Broward and Palm Beach counties in May and June 2020. Those records revealed that at least three agencies — the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale police departments — submitted more than a dozen images that referenced protests or protesters, but no crimes.
In one case, records show, police requested matching images and identifying information for a “possible protest organizer” as well as their various “associates.” In another, police ran nearly 20 searches linked to “Intelligence,” a controversial use of the technology before a crime has even been committed.
Police sometimes use facial recognition technology to track down violent and lawbreaking protesters, as Miami police did with one woman accused of hurling rocks at officers during a protest last summer. But legal experts say police go too far when they seek facial recognition matches of people assembling peacefully to make their voices heard, and it’s especially troubling when they are protesting for police reform.