The Eyes May Have It for Law Enforcement

Article excerpt

Several months ago I was in Chicago and talked to Sheriff Michael Sheahan of Cook County.

He's an interesting guy with a practical, non-ideological approach to law enforcement, neither a kill-'em-all hard-liner nor a let-'em-all-out soft-liner. I almost never like politicians, but this one, I did.

Anyway, we chatted mostly about the usual questions of police work that this column worries about regularly, so we won't go into what he said.

What especially got my attention was his effort to bring automated biometric identification to Cook County. Basically the idea is as follows:

Identifying criminals and suspects has been a major headache for law enforcement. In the past, for example, different jurisdictions kept their own fingerprint records. If John Dillinger got picked up in Bethesda, he'd probably be let loose because his prints were in Chicago.

This improved with the advent of the fax because Bethesda could transmit a suspect's prints to another jurisdiction for identification.

Things improved yet more with the coming of computer networking: Local jurisdictions could share their print files electronically so that a guy wanted in one county would be detected when printed in another county.

Unfortunately, fingerprinting remained a pain in the neck. It was slow. Prints taken with ink tended to be of low quality unless taken by somebody competent, and they had to be scanned into databases.

Computerized searches of print files helped, but the computers weren't always connected to each other.

Now a couple of good technologies are available to solve these problems. Sheriff Sheahan is trying to get both into Cook County.

One, called Eyedent, is a retina-scan system in use in the Cook County Court Services division.

Human retinas have unique patterns of blood vessels that can be used to identify people with virtual certainty. The person to be identified simply looks briefly into a set of eyepieces. The equipment scans the retina and, within seconds, voila, it's Dillinger, says so right on the screen.

The idea isn't new, but the technology to do it practically is.

The other technology is automated fingerprinting. The suspect puts his fingertips on a glass plate. The circuitry automatically images his prints and compares them with its database. Gosh, it's Judge Crater, after all these years. …