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Getting a Hand-Held on Fighting Crime

Software: ImageWare Systems' Crime Web Lite lets officers use PDAs to check suspects' identities.

June 24, 2002|CHRISTINE FREY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sgt. Larry Bryant has the suspects he wants in the palm of his hand.

Bryant, who oversees records for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, can use his hand-held organizer to instantly search more than a million mug shots by such variables as eye color, height and even distinctive tattoos.

So instead of driving back to the office to pull a file, Bryant can look up a person's booking profile--including color photograph, address and aliases--while out on the street.

The software designed by San Diego-based ImageWare Systems Inc. was introduced this year and is among the latest technology focusing on local law enforcement.

Although many new high-tech security features introduced since Sept. 11 have been aimed at fighting terrorism, tools such as ImageWare's are designed to take common criminals off the street. Unlike federal law enforcement agencies, however, most local departments don't have billion-dollar budgets.

At a time when police and sheriff's departments are facing budget cuts, law enforcement officials say they are unlikely to get money for personal digital assistants over patrol cars.

Several law enforcement agencies--including those in New York, San Antonio and Las Vegas--already have adopted the PDA technology, said ImageWare Chief Executive Jim Miller. Most departments, though, are using less glitzy gadgets and installing the software on laptops in patrol cars.

The technology is used to help identify suspects giving false names and those with outstanding warrants. When running an identity check, officers can search a digital booking database for the person's name or physical description and receive dozens of matching mug shots. Departments without a wireless connection can search as many as 50,000 records stored on a hand-held.

"It was designed as a tool, not to say that's absolutely the person that committed the crime but to help detectives narrow down the list of suspects," Miller said.

In addition to law enforcement technology, ImageWare specializes in digital photography and database management. Last month, the company posted a first-quarter loss of $1.48 million, or 27 cents a share, on revenue of $3.66 million, compared with a loss of $880,000, or 21 cents a share, on revenue of $2.76 million a year earlier.

The Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department installed the software, called Crime Web Lite, on laptops in patrol cars, giving officers wireless access to three databases: its digital bookings, registrant database (which consists of sex offenders, arsonists and narcotics offenders) and elderly database (which includes the names and descriptions of local Alzheimer's patients).

Since installing the software about two months ago, officers have been able to run more identity checks from the field, said Gordon Brussow, senior systems engineer for Stanislaus County.

"What we've found is that officers are saving time," Brussow said. "If we were out in the outskirts of the county, we used to have to drive all the way back to the office and have the clerk run and pull photos."

In Los Angeles County, where sheriff's deputies typically receive confirmation of a suspect's identity from a radio operator or a text-based computer, three patrol stations--West Hollywood, Pico Rivera and Cerritos--have installed the software in patrol car laptops. The county is testing the PDA application.

Despite the number of photographs in the system--Los Angeles County adds about 1,000 mug shots a day, Bryant estimates--the technology's success depends to some degree on law enforcement agencies sharing information.

"What we want to have is a federal repository for criminals and suspected terrorists so we can check people quickly, and that's one thing ImageWare could help do," said John Paulson, an analyst with Paulson Investment Co. "Right now you have a lot of cities and some states that have repositories and databanks that share information with each other, but criminals and terrorists move around from state to state.... You really need a national database."

ImageWare's digital booking database software--which allows officers to access digital booking databases on a secure intranet--starts at around $30,000 to $40,000, depending on the number of officers using the system. PDA licensing fees are several hundred dollars per hand-held. The PDAs, which must run the Pocket PC operating system, and wireless fees cost extra.

Because hand-helds are expensive, law enforcement officials say it is unlikely that each officer would be equipped with one. Probably only those without access to computers--detectives and officers on foot or bike patrol, for instance--would carry them.

In the future, cameras could be added to PDAs so officers could take photographs of suspects in the field. Those photographs could be run against a facial-recognition system to identify suspects.

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