The Calhoun County Jail in Alabama is testing facial recognition technology that could help revolutionize the way criminals are identified by local law enforcement agencies in the state.
Although the jail’s system is still being implemented, the new biometric software will allow officers to confirm a person’s identity just by having him or her pass in front of a camera. The technology takes 3-D snapshots of an individual’s face, each consisting of 40,000 data points. The images are then automatically compared against a database to locate a match.
Biometric technology isn’t new to Calhoun County. The jail currently uses live scan fingerprinting and has an iris scan system. But Sheriff Larry Amerson believes facial recognition will provide several advantages over those identification methods, mostly centered on officer safety and efficiency gains.
“The way this software is designed, if you walk in front of the camera, it will automatically put a box around your face, grab [an image of] your face and attempt to identify you if you have it connected to the database,” Amerson said. “So when you’re releasing people, you can make a quick and certain identification.”
Implementation of facial recognition at the jail was slightly delayed when a bad video card in the computer running the software caused the system to overload the display screen with multiple facial images. But Amerson said the issue should be resolved shortly.
The jail made an investment of $10,000 in the system from National Security Resources, a biometric applications solutions provider. The setup consists of a laptop, the facial recognition software and a camera.
The money came from the jail’s law enforcement fund, a pot of money built from inmate commissary sales, inmate phone call charges and revenue from issuing pistol permits in the county. State law permits the sheriff to use that funding for certain law enforcement expenditures, including new technology.
Once the facial recognition technology is online at the Calhoun County Jail, it will be used primarily during the booking process. The facial scans will enable officers to identify those individuals who are registered sex offenders or people who have outstanding warrants or previous arrests.
The system will also be used when releasing an inmate, to make sure the person being let go is really who he or she purports to be.
Judging the value of facial recognition technology in Calhoun County may take some time. The technology is dependent on the database the software uses to compare new facial scans with those previously stored. The bigger the database, the more effective the technology should be.
According to Amerson, only one other county in Alabama — Madison — is using the same technology. More local agencies need to get onboard with the same system in order for it to reach its maximum potential. One of Amerson’s long-term priorities is to have Calhoun County serve as a regional hub where all counties share that facial recognition database.
Amerson hopes that using facial recognition biometrics won’t be limited to booking and release procedures. He said if the technology works as advertised, the plan is to also use it while distributing medications to inmates, to make sure the correct medication goes to the right person.
In addition, facial biometrics may eventually be mobile in the county. Amerson said he can envision a scenario in which an officer scans an individual on the roadside who might not have his driver’s license with him. Using the biometric technology, a person’s identity could be more accurately verified so officers would know exactly who they are dealing with.
“You can do that with iris scans and fingerprints, but [facial recognition] doesn’t require invasion of personal space or physical contact,” Amerson said. “It grabs them without approaching, and I see tremendous potential there on the enforcement side.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.