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Click. BEEP! Face captured

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[Times photos: Bill Serne]
The surveillance cameras and face-scanning software have not been met with silence in Ybor City. On Saturday night, about 100 masked protesters compared the system to Big Brother.

By LANE DeGREGORY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 19, 2001


Out for a night of fun in Ybor City? You're being watched by 36 unblinking eyes. And one might take a picture of your face to see if you look like a criminal.

TAMPA -- Friday night at 10. On the crowded streets of Ybor City, waves of partiers are rolling past the bars. Girls in sequined halter tops, boys in backward baseball caps, vendors selling pretzels and Polaroids.

A white guy in his 30s is getting off the escalator. He has short brown hair and a well-groomed goatee. He's wearing tortoiseshell glasses, a plaid cotton shirt, khaki shorts. He walks toward the round brick fountain in Centro Ybor and sits on the low wall.

Three blocks away, Tampa police Officer Raymond C. Green is watching. He's in a long, narrow concrete block room off 17th Street, about the size of a single-car garage. His left hand is on a keyboard; his right twists a video game-style joystick. He's facing a wall of 10 television screens, arranged five wide and two high.

On the second screen from the right, bottom row, goatee guy reaches into his pants pocket. . . .

Goatee guy isn't doing anything wrong. He's hanging out in a public place, along with thousands of other people.

But you never know. He could be a child molester. Or a felon.

Or he could look like one.

Green pushes the joystick forward. Spins the knob to zoom in. Slowly, goatee guy's face comes into focus.

Click! The monitor on the filing cabinet flashes a green word, Scanning . . .

Click. Click. BEEP! Two red words slide across the top of the screen: Face Captured.

* * *
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Each of the TV screens can be split to watch 16 cameras at once. With the zoom, Green can read the slogan on someone’s shirt from a half-mile away.

On June 29, Tampa became the first city in the country to use face-scanning surveillance.

Visionics Corp. of New Jersey gave the city 26 color cameras to install along the streets of Ybor City, plus computers and software that can match a person's picture with a digital database of criminals. Police already were monitoring 10 black-and-white cameras mounted on light posts. Now 36 cameras span both sides of Seventh Avenue. Each camera can rotate in a full circle, tilt to view two stories up and down.

Green can read the slogan on someone's shirt from a half-mile away.

"I can follow a subject from 15th Street to 20th Street just by switching cameras," he says. He can split each screen to watch 16 cameras at once.

No one protested when the black-and-white surveillance cameras went up in Ybor City five years ago. People are used to being watched in convenience stores, shopping malls, schools.

But these new cameras -- and, especially, the face-scanning software -- are inciting criticism from all over.

The American Civil Liberties Union and an anti-gun-control group, the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, have lambasted the technology. About 100 masked protesters paraded down Ybor City's streets Saturday night, comparing the system to Big Brother; the demonstration made national news.

And last week, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, urged Tampa to stop using the software, saying it is too invasive. He wants Congress to hold hearings.

The Tampa City Council is scheduled to discuss the issue today. Some members said they didn't know what they were voting for when they unanimously decided to install the cameras and software. The $30,000 system is on loan to the city for a year at no cost.

"I was a little surprised by the negative reaction this has all gotten," says Green. "I didn't really expect that."

His supervisor, Capt. Louis Potenziano, would like to see face-scanning cameras on corners where drug dealers are known to hang out. "We can't have an officer there 24/7," the captain says. "This system helps us do our jobs."

The software scans a person's face and tries to match it to the faces of criminals. The criminals' photos are stored in databases: Sexual Predators and Wanted Felons, plus a separate file for Missing Children. The computer measures the distance between the person's eyes, the width of the nose, the shape of the mouth. It doesn't consider hair color or skin tone. Sometimes, when their features are similar, a young black man shows up as a possible match to the photo of a wanted middle-aged white woman.

The computer rates each match from one to 10. "If the score is eight or higher, at least an 80 percent match, an alarm goes off that sounds like something out of Star Trek, EEE-OOOH! EEE-OOOH! EEE-OOOH!" Green says. "Then, I check the photos myself to make sure. If I think it's the same person, I radio officers on the street."

According to Tampa Police Department rule 648.1, "Utilization of Face-It," responding officers "will approach the subject for the purpose of rendering a temporary stop to determine if the subject is identified as the person listed on the warrant. Responding officers . . . possess"reasonable suspicion' and their actions should correspond."

The rule continues on a second page: "These individuals may be covertly surveilled rather than directly contacted."

Covertly surveilled? It sounds like something out of a KGB handbook, circa 1961. Still, the bad guys are obviously out there, so why not round them up? Therein lies the tension for Tampa and every other city: Can you keep the streets safe and still keep them free?

At 10:03 p.m., Officer Green is still watching goatee guy. The alarm doesn't sound -- no match. But still, you never know.

Green zooms in tighter, focuses on the guy's right hand in his pocket.

Goatee guy pulls out a cigar.

* * *
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The computer rates each match from one to 10. “If the score is eight or higher, at least an 80 percent match, an alarm goes off that sounds like something out of Star Trek, EEE-OOOH! EEE-OOOH! EEE-OOOH!” says Officer Green, the system’s main operator.

Tampa police have not arrested anyone using the surveillance system.

Green has never even radioed an officer on the street about a possible computer match.

But the additional cameras helped him catch teenagers selling ecstasy, a drunk man peeing in an elevator, a guy smoking a joint.

"I've seen it all," Green says, easing back the joystick. "Some things are really funny, like the way people dance when they think no one's looking. Others, you wouldn't want to watch."

Green is 28, single and works the 12-hour night shift Thursday through Saturday. He has brown eyes, a small moustache and a wry sense of humor. He's been on the squad for five years, patroled the boozy tourist mecca of Seventh Avenue for the past three. "I wanted a change," he says. So he volunteered to take the two-hour training course and became the surveillance system's primary operator.

He's alone in the control room most shifts, except when other officers pop in for sodas. At least 25 Tampa police officers patrol Ybor City on weekend nights.

At 10:37, Green clicks a few more keys. The picture on the television switches to an alley, the back door of the Empire Club. Dozens of pierced people are milling around, smoking cigarettes.

Green takes a swig from his Diet Pepsi and clicks again. Two glittery girls are twirling past an empty bandstand. An elderly couple are strolling arm in arm. A crowd is gathering in front of the Improv.

Green puts down his soda. Zooms in on a heavy-set Hispanic woman with long, wavy hair.

Click! Scanning . . . Click. Click. BEEP! Face Captured.

About 125,000 people parade through Ybor City each Friday. Green started scanning about 9:40 tonight. By 3:15 a.m., after the bars close, he will have transmitted 457 photos to the computer -- one in every 273 people. When he shuts down the computers for the night, they purge those images.

"We're still refining it," he says of the system. He switches cameras, zooms in on the line outside Dish restaurant. "It makes it easier when people are standing still."

FaceIt has only a few hundred images stored in its databases. They come from existing law enforcement files. Eventually, the manufacturers hope to have 30,000.

The alarm sounds an average of five times each night.

But the faces have never quite matched.

"The night's not over yet," Green says, focusing on three 20-something white guys leaning against a fence. "We've got some time, still, before things start getting really wild.

"Who knows what could happen out there?"

* * *
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Tampa police Officer Raymond C. Green keeps an eye on Ybor City’s streets from a cinder block room where he tracks 36 cameras on 10 TV monitors. Throughout the night, he zooms in on partiers’ faces and scans them into the computer, hoping for a match with a criminal’s mug shot.

The computer clock says 11:07 when Green switches to Camera 30, in the elevator at Centro Ybor. A 30-something white guy with curly hair has his arm around a blond woman with a long ponytail. With his other arm, the guy reaches up, points his middle finger at the camera.

Green laughs. "It happens," he says, turning the camera away. He surveys long lines outside the Amphitheater, Frankie's Patio, Club 1509.

Click. Click. BEEP! He scans 17 more people into the computer. Nothing.

Green can't hear through the cameras. But he keeps his police radio plastered to his right ear. When he overhears a call about four males walking toward Eighth Avenue, one with a red T-shirt and a bigger guy with a beige, flowery button-up, he zooms in on them. The guys stumble down the street, stop and lounge on a black limo. The driver comes around and lets them in.

Green zooms in closer, through the limo's open back door. The guy in the flowery shirt is pouring vodka into a plastic cup. "It's illegal to walk around with open containers of alcohol," Green says.

Just then, the limo door slams. The driver cruises away.

As the night goes on, Ybor City gets darker. The white lights stretching across the streets glare against the cameras. The computer images become harder to scan.

"This view was a lot better before they put that palm tree there," Green says, trying to scan a man with dreadlocks dancing near 16th Street. "Sometimes, I wish I was out there instead."

Green flips the monitor to Camera 4 and sees two white men in their mid 20s sitting on a bench outside Club Chaos. The guy on the left is reaching into the front of his jeans. As Green watches, he whips out a plastic bag of what looks like pot and pinches some into a cigarette paper. Hundreds of people are walking by the bench, not noticing.

"Yankee 3 to Yankee 13, walk toward Club Chaos and look toward your left," Green calls into his radio. "The suspect is holding a Signal 39 in his pants. A white male, mid 20s, with a gray checkered shirt. He's walking toward the club. Hurry!"

While Green watches and the computer captures the guy's face, he finishes his smoke, stomps the butt on the sidewalk. He strolls into the club, unaware of the approaching cop. "Oh well," Green says, switching to another camera. "Sometimes they get away."

A few minutes later, the radio crackles. Green zooms in on a raggedy, bearded white man sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk. He's talking on a pay phone, crying or screaming. It's hard to tell which.

"Someone from the crisis center called. They wanted an officer to check this guy out, try to help him. He's saying he wants to hurt himself," Green says. "They need to keep him talking on the phone until we can get someone there. Then an officer can look after him until an ambulance arrives."

Green flips to other cameras, scans other corners. He uploads faces of three black men in silk shirts walking out of a dance club; a sad-looking white man in his 60s, shuffling past a jewelry stand; a young girl in fishnet stockings, limping barefoot.

Every few minutes, he brings the camera back to the man at the pay phone. Now the guy is lying on his back on the ground, surrounded by four officers. He is waving his thin arms wildly.

Green watches until the ambulance arrives.

It's 12:43 a.m. Saturday. A dark-haired woman in her late 20s is sitting on a bench between two men. She's wearing a silver tank top, tight jeans, sparkly eye shadow. Her hands are folded in her lap. She's laughing.

Green zooms in, focuses on her face. Click! Scanning . . . Click. Click. BEEP! Face Captured.

EEE-OOOH! EEE-OOOH! EEE-OOOH!

* * *
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The FaceIt system measures the distance between the person’s eyes, the width of the nose, the shape of the mouth, to try to match the face to a criminal’s. It does not consider hair or skin color.

The woman who caused the alarm twists her shoulder-length chestnut hair into a scrunchee. She turns and says something to her friend, still smiling.

Green isn't watching her now. He's studying her photo on the computer. He's comparing it to the one next to it, the one of a woman wearing a gray V-neck prison shirt, scowling. Green squints and looks closer.

The computer has scored this an 8.0, the minimum for a match. The women are about the same age, same build, with similar facial features.

"It's close," Green says. He points to the mug shot on the computer. "But this woman looks more Hispanic than that woman down there."

Still, Green keeps track of each computer match, whether or not the Ybor City-goer really looks like the criminal. With a black ballpoint pen, in a blue notebook, he logs the exact time, the number of the camera that recorded the face, the person's precise location.

Next to that, he writes down the name of the criminal whose face is similar, the crime that person committed, any other information the computer offers.

"It's important to keep track," Green says. "You never know."

You never know. If Visionics needs a marketing slogan for FaceIt, that one would do pretty well. It sums up our nervous relationship with the world: You never know.

Green swivels back to his wall of televisions.

Six blocks away, the woman stands up from the bench and smooths her silver tank top. Her friends get up, too. They stroll down the wide, crowded brick street, weaving among throngs of partiers, past vendors selling pretzels and couples kissing, beneath the twinkling lights of Ybor City.

Green watches as their backs fade into the darkness.

At 12:49 a.m., he switches to another camera. Focuses on someone else.

Click! Scanning . . . Click. Click. BEEP! Face Captured.

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