Facial recognition commission members urged to zip it

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BOSTON (SHNS) – The chairs of a commission studying the use of facial recognition technology by public agencies in Massachusetts requested that members button up as the group prepares its final recommendations, according to an email obtained by the News Service.

“The chairs ask that commissioners consider refraining from making public comments until the commission concludes its deliberations and finalizes and files the report with the House and Senate Clerks,” Judiciary Committee General Counsel Dianna Williams wrote in an email Monday to commission members. “Public comments during commission deliberations can be counterproductive, as they are often misconstrued and can inhibit the free exchange of ideas and other considerations.”

The 21-member commission was created under a policing reform law that Gov. Charlie Baker signed in December 2020 and charged with creating recommendations on regulating facial recognition software use in the state. The group missed a Dec. 31, 2021 deadline to file their recommendations with the Legislature and Baker administration.

Commissions meetings are broadcast publicly online while a website for the group hosts meeting minutes, a list of members, and written testimony the commission has received.

Commission Co-Chair Rep. Michael Day said public comments by commissioners can be “misconstrued” by other members and “often have the effect of stifling, as we said, the free exchange of ideas.”

“They also sometimes box commissioners into certain positions prematurely, which is also going to stifle deliberations,” the Stoneham Democrat told the News Service. “I think the intent was to offer our thoughts on the importance of thoughtful public comments and the potential drawbacks to making public comments that could be misconstrued.”

Day said he neglected to advise commissioners on making public comments during the commission’s meetings as he has done with other groups he’s chaired.

“That was an error on my part,” Day said. “We had a couple of questions about … public comments at this time, and that’s when I reminded myself that I didn’t make these comments during the commission hearings.”

A commission member declined to comment for a News Service story about the facial recognition commission published Monday, saying commission staff asked members not to talk to the press on the topic before the report is released.

Suffolk University Professor Maurice Dyson, a commissioner appointed by Senate President Karen Spilka, said he agrees with the email from Williams.

“I want to create a healthy space for discussion and dialogue,” he told the News Service. “We have commissioners with different viewpoints so I want to make sure that we create a constructive space so we can have dialogue without anything being misconstrued.”

At a different meeting of the Law Enforcement Body Camera Task Force on Tuesday, Salisbury Police Chief Thomas Fowler raised the question of how to handle media inquires after the work of the task force received some recent media coverage.

Suleyken Walker, counsel to the group from the Executive Office of Public Safety, told Fowler that general media requests submitted to the task force could be handled by the communications team at EOPSS, but she said “it might be odd” if independently appointed members ignored press requests directed to them.

“Go ahead and answer it,” Walker said.

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe serves as a member of the Law Enforcement Body Camera Task Force and the facial recognition commission — both groups were created by the 2020 policing reform law.

He said he would talk to members of the media or public if they reached out to him with questions regarding his work on the commission or task force.

“We’re not at a position where a final product has been agreed upon or even put forth yet for agreement,” O’Keefe said. “We’re looking to reach consensus on both the commission and the task force. I don’t know why people would be afraid to just answer the basic questions about process, that’s really where we’re at now, is going through the process to fulfill our legislatively created mandate.”

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