Pinal Sheriff's Office sees eye scanners as the future

Pinal County inmate Erik Kensey awkwardly bent his 6-foot 3-inch frame to peer into the camera.

An automated voice told him to "please, look into the mirror" before the camera rapid-fired, taking 30 black-and-white images of his eyes per second.

Captured in the photos was an iris pattern unique to Kensey, data the Sheriff's Office will use to identify him, just like a fingerprint.

The Pinal County Sheriff's Office is now using eye scanners to track its nearly 1,500 jail inmates and verify the identity of the about 700 sex offenders living in the community. "If we're about to release somebody, we can't possibly know each and every person," Sheriff Paul Babeu said Thursday. "So (an iris scan) ensures with the highest degree of accuracy who we're releasing."

Pinal joins dozens of sheriff's offices and correctional facilities across the nation using BI2 Technologies, a Massachusetts-based biometric intelligence company. The company gives local law enforcement iris-scanning capabilities and a database shared by participating agencies.

Much of the database was created through federal funds. In 2009, the National Sheriffs' Association purchased multiple iris-scan machines from BI2 Technologies with a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department.

About 45 agencies throughout the U.S. were gifted with the scans to better identify, register and track inmates. Pinal County was not one of them.

Fred Wilson, the National Sheriffs' Association operations director, is behind the effort. Wilson said some sheriff's departments were using iris scans to identify missing children and at-risk adults.

The Pinal County Sheriff's Office used $30,000 in inmate welfare funds to purchase three scanners for jail use and one to capture sex offender data.

Sean Mullin, president and CEO of BI2 Technologies, said the database, which holds more than 300,000 inmate profiles and more than 100,000 profiles of sex offenders, continues to grow as more law-enforcement agencies embrace the technology.

It is unclear if any Maricopa County law-enforcement agency utilizes iris scans. But Jay Davies, a Peoria police spokesman, said his city's officers had access to facial-recognition software, another biometric technology, through the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center.

"We have actually only submitted photos a handful of times, and thus far we have not had a successful hit/identification," Davies said. "However, this is more about the quality of photos we obtain or whether the subject is in the database than it is about the technology itself. Having this capability will be an extremely valuable tool for law enforcement moving forward."

Vincent Picard, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman in Phoenix, said agents can request facial recognition comparisons from state and local agencies, but only fingerprint biometrics are used to check Department of Homeland Security and FBI databases.

Babeu said deputies in the field may be able to use handheld devices within the next three months.

Now, deputies arresting unidentified persons may not know who they have in custody until hours after their fingerprints are processed, Babeu said. With an iris scan, that process is reduced to seconds.

"From an officer-safety perspective, to find out who we are dealing with, this literally leapfrogged us ahead in the ability of law enforcement to best protect our community," Babeu said.

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