A pilot program begun two years ago that enables the Pinellas County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office to tap into the photo archives of the state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) has resulted in hundreds more arrests and criminal investigations than otherwise would have been possible, according to speakers who discussed the project yesterday at the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference in Chicago.

About 170 deputies have been outfitted with cameras that let them take pictures of suspects that can be cross-checked against the sheriff’s office photo archive and more will be outfitted in the future, if additional funding can be found for the program, which was launched with $9 million gathered over a three-year period from several grant programs, according to Scott McCallum, system analyst for the sheriff’s office.

The cameras are very easy to use, McCallum said. “We don’t want to make photographers out of our deputies,” he said.

The sheriff’s office decided to concentrate on facial recognition in its fight against crime for several reasons, according to McCallum. One was because facial images are the “most collected biometric,” he said. Another is that officers can capture facial images from safe distances. In addition, suspects often are uncooperative. “Sometimes the face is all you have,” McCallum said.

Finally, facial recognition is much easier to execute than fingerprint identification, which requires a great deal of training and sophisticated equipment. “Essentially, we look at faces all day long, so we’re pretty good at it,” McCallum said.

When a deputy uploads an image, he receives a galley of possible matches within a minute, in most cases. The limitation to this capability is that the sheriff’s office archive consists only of images of those who previously have been arrested. That’s why tapping into the DHSMV database is so important, because anyone who has ever had a driver’s license photo taken is in it.

Also key is that the image database is updated nightly and images are never deleted, according to Maj. Steve Williams of the DHSMV.

“Some people will have three or four images several years apart,” Williams said.

A demonstration of why this is important was provided during the session. Two images were presented side by side. It appeared that they were two different people, one male and one female. However, they were the same person, something that only could be determined because a series of images was available via the DHSMV database that showed how the suspect’s appearance had evolved over time.

In another case, a man had arranged for an escort using a social-networking site. What he didn’t know is that the woman and a male accomplice planned to rob him. Because she had never been arrested — hence, no mug shot — she would have eluded law enforcement. But the sheriff’s office was able to capture her image off the social-networking site and and use its ability to run the image against the DHSMV archive to make an arrest.

In yet another case, a thief ran off with a laptop computer. What he didn’t know was that the computer had been rented. Not only did the computer have a Web camera attached to it, but the rental company had installed an application that let it track the computer and remotely capture images from the camera. They eventually were able to capture an image that allowed the sheriff’s office to identify and track down the thief.

“That one is my favorite,” McCallum said.