Civil rights or just sour grapes?
By AMY HERDY
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- The president of the company that supplied controversial TV surveillance at the Super Bowl says he declined to keep the system in Ybor City after the game for philosophical reasons.
The Tampa police official responsible for the Ybor City system now in place calls Colatosti's criticism "sour grapes."
"I couldn't believe it when I heard it," said police Detective Bill Todd. "The last time they called me . . . they wanted to know why we were going with Visionics. They were still trying to get our business."
Todd, who has vigorously defended the current system despite criticism from around the country, questioned Colatosti's logic. The company had no philosophical concerns about using the system in Ybor City during the Super Bowl, he said, so why now? "Your rights don't change just because it's a special event," he said.
Colatosti countered by arguing that the Super Bowl drew unusually large crowds to Tampa and Ybor City. "It was part of an overall security program for that weekend -- that's the distinction," said Colatosti, whose company is supplying the technology to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. "We don't want our company and our technology sullied by a radical use of the technology."
The company wants to distance itself from the negative publicity Visionics has received because it has its sights set on an even bigger deal: the Olympics.
"There's been talk of use during the Olympics," he said. "Out of public pressure, they may not want to use it." That contract could be worth "anywhere from $100,000 to a couple of million," he said.
Pinellas County commissioners last month cleared the way for Sheriff Everett Rice to accept a $3.5-million federal grant to use Viisage's software to look for matches between people wanted for crimes and people who have been booked into the county jail. The grant originally envisioned using the software to match faces with driver's license photographs, but commissioners required Rice to seek their approval before expanding the project to include those pictures.
Pinellas won't film the general public. The Sheriff's Office plans to use the grant to update its jail video booking system. As people are booked into the county jail, their photos will be scanned against more than 400,000 jail mug shots. Colatosti of Viisage contends his company never bid for the contract Visionics won. Todd called Colatosti's statements "less than truthful."
A former vendor for Viisage who now sells Visionics equipment confirmed Todd's version.
David Watkins said he worked until February for Graphco Technologies, which supplied the Viisage software for the Super Bowl. "They would have loved to have had it," he said of the deal Visionics won. But Viisage's system did not work properly, he said.
"Their technology works if you have a compliant subject," Watkins said. "The software does not work well in the surveillance setting. It does not work fast enough to react to the image it sees."
Colatosti disputed Watkins' account. "We did great" during the Super Bowl, he said.
Nineteen people matched known criminals in the company's database, he said. Though no arrests were made because of the vast crowds at the stadium, the company won "tens of millions of dollars in free publicity."
Camera contract okayed
On Thursday, the City Council voted 4-3 to keep the contract with Visionics, despite heated criticism from some who derided the surveillance equipment as "spy cameras" that intruded on citizens' privacy.
Mike Pheneger, a secretary for the Florida ACLU, called the cameras "a high-tech version of stop and frisk" that would lead to disproportionate targeting of minority groups.
"This is the height of foolishness," Pheneger said.
Even if the council had voted to cancel the contract, however, Mayor Dick Greco could ignore it. Greco has been a vocal proponent of the Visionics technology.
- Times staff writer Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.
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