In August 2017, a woman contacted the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado with what seemed like a simple case: After a date at a bowling alley, she’d discovered $400 missing from her purse and asked the manager to review the surveillance footage, which showed her companion snatching the cash while she bowled a frame.
But despite the clear evidence, the search for the bowling companion floundered. The woman knew only his first name. He’d removed his profile from the dating site on which they’d met. His number, now disconnected, was linked to a hard-to-trace “burner” phone. Security video captured his car in the parking lot, but not its license plate.
The investigator, Tara Young, set the case aside to work on others. It sat on a shelf until early 2018, when she ran into a colleague who was testing out the department’s new facial recognition system.
Young gave the officer a picture of the bowling companion taken from the victim’s cellphone. He plugged it into the software and up popped a mugshot of a man who looked a lot like the date thief.
It was Young’s first experience with facial recognition, one of the most powerful and controversial technological innovations of the 21st century. It gave her dormant case new life, and showed her its potential to transform policing.
Her investigation “would have been at a dead end without the facial recognition,” Young said. “It’s huge.”
A disputed tool goes mainstream
The technology-driven revolution in policing is unfolding in big cities and small communities around the country, as more police departments purchase facial recognition software. The government “facial biometrics” market — which includes federal, state and local law enforcement — is expected to soar from $136.9 million in 2018 to $375 million by 2025, according to an estimate by market research firm Grand View Research. Driven by artificial intelligence, facial recognition allows officers to submit images of people’s faces, taken in the field or lifted from photos or video, and instantaneously compare them to photos in government databases — mugshots, jail booking records, driver’s licenses.
Unlike DNA evidence, which is costly and can take a laboratory days to produce, facial recognition requires little overhead once a system is installed. The relative ease of operation allows officers to make the technology part of their daily work. Rather than reserve it for serious or high-profile cases, they are using it to solve routine crimes and to quickly identify people they see as suspicious.