The sheriff's office, whose jurisdiction includes St. Petersburg and its suburbs, built its facial-recognition system over more than a decade, relying for most of that time on mug shots collected at prisons and police booking centers across the state.
The system now has partnerships with the sheriff's offices in more than half of Florida's counties and many other government agencies. This year the unit added the ability to search more than 20 million driver's-license records, bringing the number of facial images in the database to 30 million, official say.
The Pinellas County system also has access to 250,000 mug shots — though not driver's license images — from the Northern Virginia Regional Identification System, a joint project of Washington area jurisdictions, including some Maryland counties.
Pinellas Deputy Jeremy Dressback, a community policing officer, uses access from the laptop in his patrol car to keep track of the people he encounters on a dingy country stretch notorious for prostitution, drugs and seedy motels.
On a recent patrol, when a scruffy-looking man he did not recognize walked up to one of the motels, Dressback stopped him on suspicions of trespassing and asked for identification. The man did not have a driver's license but gave his name — James Shepherd, age 33, from Kentucky — and said he was staying at the motel with his girlfriend.
Dressback pulled out a digital camera, asked permission to take a picture and then snapped a shot. When the image did not match anyone in the facial-recognition system, Dressback downloaded the picture to his laptop computer and attached it to a field report on Shepherd as a "suspicious person."
Shepherd, who said he was a roofer returning from work, grumbled at the intrusion, even though he had agreed to have his picture taken. "I'm not a criminal, so there's really no reason for me to be in a criminal database," Shepherd said before adding, "But I have been arrested quite a few times."
When his girlfriend walked by moments later — they were indeed staying at the motel — Shepherd directed her toward their room.
"Get out of here," he said. "You'll be in his database in 10 seconds."
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Brook Silva-Braga contributed to this report.