The Los Angeles Police Department is experimenting with facial-recognition software it says will help identify suspects, but civil liberties advocates say the technology raises privacy concerns and may not identity people accurately.
"It's like a mobile electronic mug book," said Capt. Charles Beck of the gang-heavy Rampart Division, which has been using the software. "It's not a silver bullet, but we wouldn't use it unless it helped us make arrests."
But Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the technology was unproven and could encourage profiling on the basis of race or clothing.
"This is creeping Big Brotherism. There is a long history of government misusing information it gathers," Ripston said.
The department is seeking about $500,000 from the federal government to expand the use of the technology, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday. Police have been testing it on Alvarado Street just west of downtown Los Angeles.
In one recent incident, two officers suspected two men illegally riding double on a bicycle of being gang members. If they were, they may have been violating an injunction that barred those named in a court documents from gathering in public and other activities.
As the officers questioned the men, Rampart Division Senior Lead Officer Mike Wang pointed a hand-held computer with an attached camera at one of the men. Facial-recognition software compared his image image to those of recent fugitives, as well as dozens of members of local gangs.
Within seconds, the screen displayed nine faces that had contours similar to the man's. The computer said the image of one particular gang member subject to the injunction was 94 percent likely to be a match.
That enough to trigger a search that yielded a small amount of methamphetamine. The man did turn out to be the gang member, and was arrested on suspicion of violating the injunction by possessing illegal drugs. The city attorney's office has not yet decided whether to charge the man.
The LAPD has been using two computers donated by their developer, Santa Monica-based Neven Vision, which wanted field-testing for its technology. The computers are still considered experimental.
The Rampart Division has used the devices about 25 times in the two months officers have been testing them. The technology has resulted in 16 arrests for alleged criminal contempt of a permanent gang injunction, and three arrests on outstanding felony warrants.
On one occasion, the computer was used to clear a man the officers suspected of being someone else, police said.
So far, the city attorney has filed seven injunction cases in arrests that involved the technology. A judge dismissed a case after questioning the technology, but it has been refiled. Suspects in two cases pleaded guilty.
Other experiments with facial-recognition software have had mixed results. Officials in Tampa, Fla., stopped using it last year because it didn't result in arrests. And a Boston's Logan International Airport in 2002, two systems failed 96 times to identify people who volunteered to help test it. The technology correctly identified 153 other volunteers.
Luis Li, chief of the Los Angeles city attorney's criminal branch, said the technology should not present legal problems because it was used only as an initial means of identification.
"If you are standing in the street, you have no expectation of privacy," he said.