As long there have been police, there have been suspects who’ve evaded justice with forged identification, fake names or not having any I.D.
But for sheriff’s deputies in Pinal County, now there’s an app for that.
Deputies there will be the first in nation to receive a new device that attaches to an iPhone, with near-instant capabilities to identify people by scanning their irises, face or fingerprints. Deputies can scan suspects when they make contact, and results come back within seconds.
Sheriff Paul Babeu called the technology a game-changer for law enforcement.
“Information is only as good as the information they give you or the documents they give you,” Babeu said. “A lot of people have documents that can fool even the well-trained eye. A lot of people don’t have any documentation and I’m not talking about illegal immigrants. I’m talking about anybody, including citizens.”
Scanning fingerprints, irises and faces isn’t new. But it usually involved taking a suspect to a station, downloading information on a laptop and separate devices for each operation.
Babeu will get the first 70 units in November, said Sean Mullin, CEO of Massachusetts-based BI2 Technologies.
“This is really a leap forward because it includes all three biometrics on a smart phone and you don’t have to hook it up to anything,” Mullin said.
The device is called the Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System, or MORIS. They’re slightly larger than the smart phone they’re attached to.
Pinal County is the only Arizona law enforcement agency in line to get MORIS units now, but Mullin expects at least six more will sign orders within three months.
Earlier versions that scan irises are in 47 states. Nearly a half-million suspects are in a nationwide database that’s growing rapidly, Mullin said. He expects demand for the units will skyrocket as the database grows and police can identify larger numbers of people who have evaded identification before.
Future versions will read bar codes on driver’s licenses to pull up a driver’s record, read license plates and magnetic strips on documents like passports.
Babeu plans to scan people suspected of arrestable offenses, but not for things like speeding. But deputies could ask to scan some people they contact, just as they sometimes ask to inspect a vehicle. In both cases, people can decline.
That raises concerns about privacy and the potential of abusing the technology.
New technologies like this tend to advance faster than the law can catch up, said Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. Law enforcement agencies need clear, written rules on when police can and cannot use the devices and what they do with the information, she said.
Meetze fears the public won’t understand their rights.
“They are free to refuse to cooperate with police officers, but the reality is it is a coercive situation and many people do not realize they have a right to say ‘No, don’t capture my biometric information,’ ” she said.
Mullin said the network has safeguards. It doesn’t allow deputies in the field to search for names, so all they can do is enter a new iris or fingerprint.
The technology improves public safety by allowing officers to properly identify people, he said.
“Just because the technology has gotten so good, so quick, it doesn’t change 200 years of Constitutional law,” Mullin said.
Pinal County began scanning all sex offenders and jail inmates at the start of this year. So far, 11,796 inmates have been booked this year.
Pinal County has 214 sworn deputies. Babeu said the 70 MORIS units will go to deputies most likely to contact suspects, such as detectives, those who work sex crimes and patrol deputies.
Babeu predicts deputies will identify and detain more suspects in serious crimes who are being turned free today.
Now when deputies use fingerprints to identify a suspect, they must drive to a substation. That can take an hour in the sprawling county. Deputies normally release suspects for minor crimes after booking them, which can happen much faster than a database can match the just-obtained fingerprints against a national database. By that time, some suspects with felony warrants have been let go.
Sometimes, deputies don’t even get that far.
“When you’re talking about people who don’t have documents, a lot of times officers just let them go because we have no idea who the person is.” Babeu said. “This happens all too often.”
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