Access Granted

CAL-photo is giving California law enforcement unprecedented access to 32 million driver's license photos.

by / July 3, 2002
The California Department of Motor Vehicles' database contains 32 million driver's license photos, a fact not lost on the state's law enforcement community.
California law enforcement officers have typically relied on yellowing, dog-eared booking photos or no photos at all, making identification of criminal suspects a time-consuming affair.

But a collaborative effort between the California Department of Justice and the DMV has opened up that cache of 32 million images to the state's law enforcement agencies, providing almost instant access to images. The project, called CAL-photo, began with the state's law enforcement agencies seeking to capture and share intelligence, including photos. It has led to the marriage of two agencies whose relationship had been distant at best, and has given California law enforcement a valuable resource.

"The breakthrough here is to be able to download the photos," said California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. "We rely a great deal on the DMV photo files to make this system robust. That's where the bulk of the photos reside."

Until the DOJ approached the DMV about CAL-photo, law enforcement had no real access to the DMV database. Officers could request a DMV photo but it might have taken up to 14 days to get it, making the effort worthless in some instances.

"Every bureaucracy has its protected turf, but [DMV] understood the benefits of using their files this way." Lockyer said. "What's the point of having the files if you don't use them?"

Now the database is accessible in minutes. It's a resource that's in demand from local law enforcement agencies in seven major counties, as well as the staff at the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center (CATIC), which was created after Sept. 11.

CATIC now uses the files on a daily basis in its effort to sniff out potential terrorists, including recent investigations of the Russian mafia. "We've got five analysts answering phones and every one of them is accessing the database multiple times an hour to get photos," said Bob Morehouse, manager of the Intelligence Operations Program in DOJ's Law Enforcement Division.

Local Successes

Local law enforcement agencies need only a browser and permission from the DOJ to access Cal-photo. Officers can then enter a name, a social security number, or a driver's license number to locate a photo of an individual, if it exists, from a central imaging index. The search will also reveal the subject's address, what type of driver's license he or she has and display a thumbprint image and signature.

In San Diego County, a particularly successful car thief had local officials perplexed until they located a latent thumbprint from one of the cars and ran it through the CAL-photo system. The search yielded the identity and photo of an individual who turned out to be their man.

"We've seen that scenario played out over and over," said Sherri Hofer, acting chief of the Departmental Service Bureau at the DOJ.

San Diego County officers used CAL-photo in the recent high-profile investigation into the abduction and murder of a young girl to help identify individuals who had been in the area. They eventually eliminated all but the suspect who was arrested.

Officers can also enter characteristics of a suspect into the system and get an index of individuals with similar characteristics from the DMV database. They can then create an electronic suspect lineup of those individuals.

"If I've got someone who is 5'2" and 140 pounds, female, brown hair, I can go in and say here's a photo, I want you to find me people with similar characteristics," Hofer said. "It will bring back in the window a list and you can start clicking through them and pick the ones to use for the lineup."

The latest development in the program is Orange County's ability to access photo files from patrol cars. Officers can determine immediately if a suspect is who he says he is, or have a witness ID a suspect on the spot by looking up a DMV photo. That immediacy makes for a more accurate identification.

"When you send the photo right to the squad car, it means that a suspect ID by a witness could occur on the street corner, and that's a great improvement over dragging people downtown, which they are reluctant to do in the first place," Lockyer said.

Of even greater value, though, is the access to photos that weren't available before, according to Capt. Ron Wilkerson from the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "That's really the key because many of the people law enforcement officers deal with on the street have not been booked into jail before, so there's no booking photo available."

Orange County also has various access points located throughout the county where officers can go to create an electronic police lineup. And the ability to create a lineup in a squad car is around the corner, Wilkerson said. "That's the next step. Within the year we'll have that last piece in and then it's going to be quite a system."

A Concept that Grew

The data-sharing program had been in the works for years but actual implementation didn't begin until 1998. That's when the DOJ decided to use a $400,000 Technologies Opportunity Program (formerly TIIAP) grant to create a central imaging index for data sharing.

The effort intensified after Sept. 11 in an effort to give the newly formed Governor's Task Force on Terrorism access to the DMV database. By last winter, the task force was using the program regularly, as were the seven agencies taking part in what was then considered a pilot project.

The San Diego Automated Regional Information System, a coalition of a number of agencies in San Diego County, was first on board. Later, Orange County, Ventura, Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Jose County agencies joined the pilot project.

"This was originally started to link different law enforcement databases of information and share photos," said Candy Wohlford, deputy director of the DMV's Communications Program Division. "Then they realized that the biggest use would be for the DMV database."

The DMV photos are made accessible through the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications Systems (CLETS), a system that provides users with access to state, local and federal computerized information files.

"When people use the DMV networks they come in through the CLETS network, which has authorizations and security built in," Wohlford said. "They request a photo and have it sent to them all online."

Each agency has a user ID and a password that is changed every 30 days. Use of the system is restricted to official business, and records are kept on who accessed the system, when they did it and for what purpose, according to Hofer. "I can tell who looked at your photo, I can tell when they looked at it and I can tell why they looked at it.

"We have a positive audit trail that we keep for three years and the DMV has access to that," said Hofer. "The DMV can come in at any time and question why someone was looking at their information. Everybody understands that it has to be on a right-to-know, need-to-know basis, not just because I want to know."

The DMV database is getting about 40,000 requests per month from law enforcement, including the FBI, for which the DMV began scanning and e-mailing images last fall. All requests for photos through CAL-photo now go through the DMV's backup box, which is centered in Orange County.

"When a peace officer anywhere in the state accesses a DMV photo through CAL-photo as it's configured today, they actually go through the back-up box so they aren't impacting the online box for photos," Wilkerson said.


Another Building Block

All seven counties on the system have access to DMV photos, but not all have made their databases available. Making all of those databases accessible through the system will be another building block.

"Each agency captures their photos and data differently than we might need it," said Becky Mills, CAL-photo project manager. "Working on that interface takes time."

DOJ is working on formalizing a specification for all the agencies to duplicate. Another goal is expanding the capacity for agencies to transmit photos to the patrol cars, as Orange County is doing and San Diego County is preparing to do. That ability depends somewhat on the local cellular service.

"These are all agencies that have cellular towers within their county," Hofer said. "But as San Diego was telling me, it has to do with the speed of the service that your cellular provider can provide."

Beyond that, Mills is working on a systematic plan to involve the entire state in CAL-photo. Mills' plan breaks the state down into zones. The scheme is to nail down at least two agencies within each zone and watch the program branch out from there.

That may not be difficult because the program is generating a lot of interest, according to Hofer. "Everybody is calling and saying 'I want this.'"
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor