Celtics players call on Mass. Gov. to keep facial recognition regulations in police reform bill

Cassandra Negley
·4 min read

The Boston Celtics players are calling out Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker for rejecting a portion of legislation they argue would prevent “supercharged racial profiling by police.”

The players signed their names to an op-ed in the Boston Globe that ran on Wednesday and addressed a police accountability bill Baker sent back to lawmakers. Rather than sign it as expected, the governor wants to remove regulations on the government’s use of facial recognition technology.

The Celtics teammates are asking the Legislature to keep the regulations in the law and return it to the governor, who they urged to sign it.

“We can’t allow biased technology to supercharge racist policing in the Commonwealth,” they wrote.

Massachusetts looks to pass police reform bill

State lawmakers passed the bill at the beginning of December, calling it one of the most comprehensive reform packages to be adopted in the nation. They faced strong opposition from police unions, but it passed with a 28-12 vote in the Senate and 92-67 vote in the House.

The legislation gives power to a newly formed commission to oversee policing and bars officers from using “chokeholds” while placing restrictions on “no-knock warrants.”

The law would also put a moratorium on biometric surveillance systems, including facial recognition technology. Lawmakers said it would be a first for the nation, according to Reuters.

The Celtics players are pushing back on Baker’s resistance to a full ban on facial recognition use. It is a continuation of their commitment to advocate for law enforcement changes that address policing and systemic racism.

Celtics players argue for facial recognition restrictions

The players wrote in the op-ed they were “disappointed” in the decision because “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.”

Fellow elected officials and organization leaders are also criticizing the governor for not signing the bill.

In the op-ed, the Celtics use data on the technology that shows it is flawed and biased. They reference the ACLU of Massachusetts experiment using facial recognition software that falsely matched 27 professional athletes with a database of mugshots. Two Celtics players, Tacko Fall and Gordon Hayward, were matched.

Consequences of facial recognition errors by police

Boston Celtics kneel.
Boston Celtics team members kneel during the national anthem while in the NBA bubble in September. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Former New England Patriots safety Duron Harmon was also matched and provided a statement on the potential harm to the ACLU and Boston Globe in October of 2019.

“If it misidentified me, my teammates, and other professional athletes in an experiment, imagine the real-life impact of false matches. This technology should not be used by the government without protections.”

The Celtics players used real-life examples of wrongful arrests and explained the implications of it. Via the Boston Globe:

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.

Facial recognition systems in use by police often operate with little oversight and their use in cases is not always disclosed to defendants, per a New York Times report from January.

Celtics offer ‘right balance’ of rights, solving crimes

The law would not outrightly eliminate the use of facial recognition technology, an aspect the Celtics players appear to support. Police, they write, could use the technology just as they use the Registry of Motor Vehicles: when it is necessary in serious criminal investigations and done through the correct process.

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 to images already held by the government.

Jaylen Brown urged his social media followers on Tuesday night to take a stand and contact their local officials to voice support of the facial recognition portion of the bill.

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