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A split Baltimore City Council panel blocks bill seeking to limit the use of facial recognition technology

Baltimore’s Public Safety Committee refused Tuesday to advance a bill that that sought to prohibit the use of facial recognition technology, with some members citing concerns that it could affect the city’s police department.

Committee members split 3-3 on a bill sponsored by City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, keeping it from moving to the full council for consideration.

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The topic of facial recognition and its role in law enforcement has become increasingly controversial as studies have found facial recognition algorithms to be biased, accurately identifying middle-aged white males more often than other races, genders and age groups.

A major topic of contention during Tuesday’s hearing was the police department’s use of a statewide photo database to identify suspects, which some feared could be negatively affected if the bill passed.

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Baltimore Police Col. Sheree Briscoe said that the database is “more than anything, a digitized photo book” that requires an investigator to affirm that a match brought up by the computer is, in fact, the correct person.

“The detectives use that along with every other tool,” Briscoe said.

Burnett said the city law department ruled the bill would not affect Baltimore police because the department is actually a state agency, so the local law would not have primary jurisdiction.

“My intention is also not to impact the current use of this by the Baltimore Police Department," Burnett said.

However, there was some confusion over whether that was accurate, with city attorney Hilary Ruley saying that she’d need to read more about the state law to see whether police could continue to use the database if the bill was passed.

Councilman Leon Pinkett, one of the three “no” votes, said facial recognition technology is “a road we go down with much caution," adding that he still has questions about how passage of such a bill could affect the department.

The other two “no” votes were Councilwoman Danielle McCray and Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer. Burnett, Councilman Zeke Cohen and Councilwoman Shannon Sneed were the three “yes” votes.

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