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Ybor police cameras go spy-tech

Using new software in surveillance cameras, police go high-tech in their search for the bad guys.

By AMY HERDY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2001


Using new software in surveillance cameras, police go high-tech in their search for the bad guys.

TAMPA -- Strolling along Centro Ybor, the young woman stopped to browse at a shop window. Unbeknownst to her, she was presenting her back to a camera monitoring her progress.

"Turn around," coached the man watching her on a video monitor tucked within a building several yards away, even though she could not hear him.

The man, David Watkins of Advanced Biometric Imaging, was trying to compare the woman's face with thousands of images stored in a database of wanted criminals and sex offenders.

The software he was installing, called Face-It, is linked to 36 cameras throughout the Centro Ybor entertainment complex and along E Seventh Avenue. It's the first system of its kind in the state, and Friday the Tampa Police Department began using the software for the first time.

"If there's a hit -- boom, we'll send an officer to confirm or deny who it is," said Tampa police Detective Bill Todd, who helped implement the system after being approached by its owner, Visionics Corp. of New Jersey.

The software costs $30,000, but is on loan for a year while the department decides whether to purchase it, said Maj. Rick Duran, who considers it a valuable tool.

"What's the best way to say this place is safe?" Duran said. "This is a way of letting local hooligans know they will be identified."

The system, he said, is similar to the one used during the Super Bowl, where surveillance cameras were aimed at people entering the turnstiles, a practice that led some to dub the game, "Snooper Bowl."

Of the 19 "hits" obtained at the Super Bowl, however, none led to arrests, Duran said.

"We could never get through the crowd," he said, a problem he does not anticipate in Ybor City.

"We don't have the massive crowds here like at the Super Bowl," although attendance can reach 70,000 on weekends, he said.

Duran said a dozen officers have been trained for the new system, which will use only one or two officers at a time for the surveillance.

Here's how it works: The software can instantly capture the images of up to four people (it is programmed for four, but capable of capturing eight at a time) and compares those images to a computer database based on 80 points of the person's face, in an area encompassing their eyes and nose.

The database consists of those wanted on active warrants from the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and a list of sexual offenders from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Todd said. A larger pool can be added later if desired.

If there is a resemblance, the computer will rate it from 1 to 10, giving out an audible "whoop whoop!" alarm for 8.5 and above.

The officer will then contact others on the street by radio, Todd said, who will stop the person and determine their identity. If they are wanted, they will be arrested. If they are not, the situation will be explained to them and they are free to go.

The incident is also recorded in a log for future reference.

Since so many teenagers frequent Ybor City, Todd said, it is an area that could be targeted by sexual offenders, who have restrictions in their probation that typically prohibit them from contact with minors or with alcohol, he said.

In the future, the police department hopes to add to the database, including gang members and missing children, Todd said.

Wanda Souders, shopping in Centro Ybor Friday afternoon, embraced the idea.

"That's awesome," said Souders, 35, a caterer. "If you don't have anything to worry about, it won't bother you. As far as any invasion of rights -- if you're breaking the law, your rights are kind of dissolved."

The situation disturbed Ryan Rovelto, 23, who works at the Creatures of Delight shop on 15th Street in Ybor, and lives a few blocks away.

"It's kind of like a police state," Rovelto said. "Whether I have a warrant or not, it makes me uncomfortable they can pick me out of a crowd" and run his image, he said.

In time, Rovelto said, "Who knows what they'll use it for?"

- Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or herdy@sptimes.com.

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