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Phoenix school first to install face scanners

The Arizona Republic
Dec. 11, 2003

A north-central Phoenix school is the first in the nation to install cameras designed to detect the faces of sex offenders or missing children and instantly alert police.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office used a grant to install equipment in the entrance and attendance office at Royal Palm Middle School, 8520 N. 19th Ave. The cameras are expected to be operating next week.

Rebecca Dornbusch, deputy director of the International Biometric Industry Association in Washington D.C., had never heard of biometric face scanning being used on K-12 campuses. Biometric handprints are being used by a few day care centers to insure the right adults are picking up kids after school, she said.

"This is a very interesting and new application of the technology," Dornbusch said.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio said the cameras cost about $3,000 to $5,000 for a school to install and will not violate the privacy of anyone not already in the Arizona sex offender or in the national missing children databases, including possible abductors of missing children. If the camera registers a possible hit, the Sheriff's Office is quietly alerted and will send a deputy or police officer to investigate.

Arpaio said the Royal Palm system is not set to recognize people wanted for other crimes. School districts are not interested in becoming law enforcement agencies, he said.

"The main issue is to take care of kids," Arpaio said. "We're not going to go after people who have warrants."

The system scans 28 facial features and matches them against logged images in the databases. School personnel will not know about the alert, and images that do not match the databases are erased, with no permanent recording.

Mary Lou Micheaels is a mother of three and a member of the Washington District School Board. She's heard no complaints from parents.

"I wanted to make sure it was a system that protected our children and protected people's privacy," Micheaels said. "If one child isn't abducted, or one is found, it's worth it."

Principal Mike Christensen carries around the responsibility for the safety of Royal Palm's 1,180 seventh- and eighth-graders. Christensen said he volunteered to test the new equipment, even though the campus has reported no problems.

"I do not think we can do too much," Christensen said. "When kids walk on campus, the expectation is they need to be safe."

Royal Palm mother Teresa Johnson said she supports the idea and would like to see the campus install a third biometric camera in the parking lot, a more likely place to find sex offenders lurking.

Arpaio's office already is using biometric equipment to help verify the identity of suspects being booked into county jails. The locally based Hummingbird Defense Systems donated $350,000 worth of equipment to Arpaio's office for pilot projects.

The chances of catching a molester or finding a missing child on this campus are remote, Arpaio said, but this is an experiment that could begin to make a difference in a growing problem. Arpaio said he's ready to help other districts install the equipment.

Reach the reporter at pat.kossan@arizonarepublic.com .

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