Calhoun County Jail tests new identification system
by Brian Anderson
Apr 12, 2012 | 5507 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Calhoun County Jail is one of the first offices in the state and country to implement new facial identification technology. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
The Calhoun County Jail is one of the first offices in the state and country to implement new facial identification technology. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
New technology being tested at the Calhoun County Jail could be the future of identifying criminals.

At least that’s the hope, said Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson, an advocate for new facial recognition biometrics slowly being developed by law enforcement agencies. Calhoun County is one of the first offices in the state, and the country, to implement the new technology.

Instead of focusing on fingerprints and iris detection, the facial identification concentrates on the area around the eyes, including the nose, parts of the cheek and forehead.

“This part of your face is more unique than your fingerprints or your iris,” Amerson said Wednesday, highlighting the area on his own face with his cupped hands. “This area allows for a much more detailed identification of a person.”

It’s also an easier, less intrusive way for officials to identify people with criminal records.

“With facial recognition, I don’t need to invade your private space,” Amerson said. “With iris detection I need to get right up close to your eye. With fingerprints we need some type of physical contact.”

The technology works by taking digital snapshots — up to 70 in a minute — each of which contain 40,000 total data points. These data points can be stored to instantly match up the information when new snapshots are entered.

“All he has to do is walk in front of the camera,” Amerson said. “Instantly, if they’re in the database, the software will recognize him.”

Currently the system is being used in the booking process at the Calhoun County Jail, detecting whether incoming inmates have other warrants and arrests and identifying registered sex offenders. It can also be used to deter crimes involving “stolen” identities or false identities given to law enforcement.

The system would be just as helpful on the other end of the booking process, Amerson said. Alluding to an incident earlier this year when an inmate was able to join a group being processed out of the jail, Amerson said the technology could recognize instantly the person was a current inmate.

“The hope is one day you can take a shot of someone with your cell phone and immediately be able to identify him,” said Chief Deputy Matthew Wade.

That, however, might be a long way off. Most deputies at the jail have yet to be trained with the new equipment and a problem with the video card in the computer systems at the county jail has already presented a challenge to Jail Administrator Eric Starr. In a demonstration of the software Wednesday, Starr pointed out where the buildup of multiple digital snapshots accumulated on the computer screen, eventually obscuring much of the monitor used to take the photos.

Amerson said the problem isn’t with the software, but with the county’s computer system, and officials have plans to fix the problem in the near future.

But there’s also the small matter of cost. While the cameras used with the software — small, simple devices that can easily sit on top of a laptop — are $200 and well below the price of iris-detection software, the software for facial detection can cost up to $10,000 for a license, money the Sheriff’s Office got from its law enforcement fund.

“Obviously we can’t afford to put this in every patrol car with that kind of pricing,” Amerson said. “But the more this gets implemented, the more people begin to use it, we think that price will go down.”

Even if the technology is just in the early stages of implementation, Amerson believes his office is paving the way for the future. On behalf of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, Amerson met with officials in Washington last week to talk about receiving grant money to make the technology available statewide. Members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office have been in contact to talk about the new system with the county.

“That’s the essential ingredient of what we do,” Amerson said. “Making sure we’re dealing with the correct person.”

Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star

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