Police cameras scan for criminals

Tampa is the first U.S. city to use high-tech surveillance cameras in public

spots to capture images of people's faces to then match against a database

of people wanted for crimes.

Using software developed by Visionics Corp., the Tampa Police Department's

face-recognition system will scan the Ybor City district for images to match

against a database that eventually will hold 30,000 records, said Detective

Bill Todd. The database will contain images of sexual predators, people

with felony warrants, and runaway children and teens, he said.

Todd described the district as a rejuvenated entertainment area, akin

to New Orleans, but added there's not a whole lot of crime there. The 36

cameras are positioned in a 16-block area.

Once a camera captures an image, it's routed through the database. If

there's no match, the image is deleted. If an image matches a record in

the database, a sound will alert the police officer monitoring the system.

The officer would then compare the two images and decide whether it warrants

further inquiry. If the officer decides it doesn't, the image is deleted.

But if the officer thinks there is a match, officers in the field would

be notified.

Todd said the department has instituted policies for its police officers

to make a determination. He said police would not use "Gestapo-style" tactics

when approaching a person, but simply ask for identification. "If it's not

the person in the database, then we say, "Thank you for your cooperation,'

" he said, adding that a written log of the event is kept.

Richard Smith, chief technology officer for the Privacy Foundation,

a nonprofit research and education group, said Tampa is "really going way

over the line."

He questioned how well the system worked and whether many people are

being stopped. "I'm not against high-tech surveillance in general," he said.

"It's a system like this with innocent people...and putting them through

a database and checking them to see if they have a criminal record."

Todd said the police are using the surveillance system and software

to deter crime, not to infringe on anyone's rights.

"We don't believe it's intrusive at all," he said. "This is no different

than a police officer standing on the corner with a case of mug shots and

looking at people walking on the street."

Tampa will test the software for a year at no cost before deciding whether

to negotiate a renewal. Neither Todd nor Visionics spokeswoman Frances Zelazny

would comment on specifics of the agreement or the price of the software.

Zelazny said Tampa is the first U.S. municipality to use the system

in a public safety initiative. In England, Newham Borough of London has

been using Visionics' software in a camera surveillance system since the

fall of 1998, she said. In the United States, she said many law enforcement

agencies use the software for mug shot booking systems.

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