ST. PETERSBURG — Facial recognition technology was pioneered by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office almost a decade ago. The software can glean an uncooperative suspect's name from a photo. Officers from Tampa Bay to Miami and Jacksonville to Tallahassee are using it.
The St. Petersburg Police Department is up next.
The City Council has approved spending $88,400 to give the city's officers and detectives the same digital capabilities that many Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies already enjoy.
Using the sheriff's software and database, St. Petersburg police will be able to match a suspect's face against photos of more than 7.5 million offenders from across the United States.
It's one of the nation's largest such databases, used routinely by deputies in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando. Now Assistant Chief Dave DeKay said St. Petersburg wants to see what it can do with the system.
"We liked what we heard about it and thought we'd try it out in the field and see how it works," DeKay said.
"We don't know where it will lead to, but if it helps us identify people quicker, if it helps us get more names, if it helps us check surveillance photos for more investigative leads, it's going to benefit us," the assistant chief said.
The Pinellas sheriff's database includes everyone arrested in Pinellas County since 1994 and has grown to include mug shots from Broward, Duval, Hardee, Hernando, Hillsborough, Leon, Palm Beach, Pasco, Polk, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Orange and Sumter counties, the Florida Department of Corrections and the entire federal arrest database of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The Sheriff's Office is negotiating to add mug shots from seven other Florida counties and an agency in Virginia.
The Pinellas County jail uses the database to check every inmate coming and going from jail — that's more than 120,000 checks a year. About 170 Pinellas deputies use it 1,500 times a month on the street.
Since 2004, the agency says, deputies have used the system to arrest more than 600 people who tried to hide their true identities from law enforcement.
An officer doesn't need to have a suspect in handcuffs to use the system. A good shot of a suspect's face from a surveillance video could be compared to photos in the database, too.
The council recently agreed to spend $10,200 to buy six software licenses from the Sheriff's Office. Deputies also train the Police Department's officers and technical support staff. Clearwater is the only other Pinellas agency that is licensed to use the software from the Sheriff's Office.
Most of St. Petersburg's licenses are for patrol officers, who will have the program on laptop computers in their police cars. Specially trained officers will do facial recognition checks for fellow officers.
Some of the licenses will be used by detectives to check surveillance footage. Another $33,000 will be spent on the equipment that will allow the agency to store the database and share photos.
That's not the only upgrade.
Another $39,200 will pay for 350 digital cameras and memory cards. That's enough to equip every sworn officer on the force and allow them to photograph suspects and crime scenes on their own instead of waiting for a crime scene technician to arrive.
And $3,000 will go to equipment that will allow the department to easily digitize, store and duplicate surveillance footage — especially footage captured on out-of-date formats, like VHS, that are used in older gas stations and convenience stores.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.