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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Facial recognition software gives Pierce County help in tough cases

The forgery and theft case had victims, a witness and decent surveillance images from an ATM. What it didn't have were any leads on who committed the crime. But instead of being tossed aside, as happens in so many property crime cases, the ATM images were e-mailed to Steve Wilkins at the Pierce County Sheriff's Department.

Wilkins, the department's forensic services supervisor, picked the clearest image and used new facial recognition software to compare it with 16 years' worth of prisoner mug shots taken at the Pierce County Jail.

Within 15 minutes he'd found a match.

Detectives followed the new lead and eventually arrested Susan Bennett, who was charged in October with 11 crimes in connection with the ATM thefts. She pleaded guilty Dec. 11 and was sentenced to 9 1/2 years. Half of that will be served in prison, and half in community custody under Department of Corrections supervision.

The match was the first for the Sheriff's Department's six-month pilot project with Sagem Morpho Inc.'s new facial recognition software, MorphoFace.

The computer program runs with Hollywood-like ease and, with a click of a button, compares a suspect's image with a database of thousands of known Pierce County offenders.

"It's really cool," said Wilkins, who wants to buy the final version of the software when it hits the market in January and add it to his forensic tools.

Detectives and Tacoma-Pierce County Crime Stoppers officials are revisiting unsolved bank robberies, ATM scams and other crimes that have good surveillance images to see whether the program can crack the cases. [Mark Godsey]

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