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Sunday, November 28, 2010

New York City Police Photograph Irises of Suspects

The New York Police Department has begun photographing the irises of people who are arrested in an effort to prevent escapes as suspects move through the court system, a police official said Monday.
The program was instituted after two embarrassing episodes early this year in which prisoners arrested on serious charges tricked the authorities into freeing them by posing at arraignment as suspects facing minor cases. The occurrences exposed weaknesses in the city’s handling of suspects as they move from police custody into the maze of court systems in the five boroughs.
With the new system, the authorities are using a hand-held scanning device that can check a prisoner’s identity in seconds when the suspect is presented in court, said Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman.
Officials began photographing the irises of suspects arrested for any reason on Monday at Manhattan Central Booking and expect to expand the program to all five boroughs by early December, Mr. Browne said.
The department has been working on the program for months, Mr. Browne said. But the effort caught many in the city’s legal circles by surprise as news of it began trickling out late last week. It is raising concerns among civil libertarians and privacy advocates, who say the authorities’ cataloging of the new data could put innocent people under permanent suspicion.
“It’s really distressing that the Police Department is once again undertaking a new regime of personal data collection without any public discourse,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, “and we don’t know the reason for it, whether this is a necessary program, whether it’s effective to address the concerns that it’s designed to address, and whether in this day and age it’s even cost-effective, not to mention whether there are any protections in place against the misuse of the data that’s collected.”
Steven Banks, attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, said his office learned about the program on Friday in a phone call from the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator.
“This is an unnecessary process,” Mr. Banks said. “It’s unauthorized by the statutes and of questionable legality at best. The statutes specifically authorize collecting fingerprints. There has been great legislative debate about the extent to which DNA evidence can be collected, and it is limited to certain types of cases. So the idea that the Police Department can forge ahead and use a totally new technology without any statutory authorization is certainly suspect.”
Mr. Browne said a legal review by the department had concluded that legislative authorization was not necessary.
“Our legal review determined that these are photographs and should be treated the same as mug shots, which are destroyed when arrests are sealed,” he said.
The technology uses high-resolution images to identify unique patterns in the iris, the colored part of the eye. It is considered less intrusive than retinal scanning, which looks at patterns in the blood vessels in the back of the eye and can reveal information about a person’s health, raising privacy concerns.
The department’s collection and use of electronic data have long been controversial. A new state law forced the department to halt electronic storage of the names and addresses of people stopped under the stop-and-frisk program but not charged or arrested.
The iris database has other implications as well, potentially providing the department with a tool in the fight against terrorism. The military has been using similar biometric technology in Iraq and Afghanistan to develop a database of potential insurgents, though Mr. Browne said that the Police Department’s data was not intended for that use and that there had been no coordination with the Defense Department or the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the program.
Other police agencies and correctional facilities across the country also use iris recognition, though it was unclear on Monday how widespread the practice is.
Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which focuses on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues, said that law and policy had developed over time on the collection of fingerprints, and more recently DNA, in the criminal justice system, and that iris scans fell somewhere in between.
“It’s a more accurate form of identification,” Mr. Rotenberg said of the scans, “but at the same time doesn’t raise the same privacy concerns that DNA data has.”
The program will cost the city $500,000 to implement and is being paid for through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, Mr. Browne said.
In March, a suspect charged in a string of robberies, who had served time in prison for attempted murder, claimed to be another man, who was facing a charge of marijuana possession, as they were about to be arraigned on Staten Island. The ruse worked and the suspect, Freddie Thompson, was released and remained free for 56 hours before he was recaptured. Another suspect, Michael Bautista, who was facing charges of assault and criminal mischief in the Bronx, escaped in the same manner in February and remains at large.
Mr. Browne said he had no statistics on how often suspects had escaped in this manner, but he said the problem was not widespread.
William K. Rashbaum and Karen Zraick contributed reporting.