Monday, November 15, 2010

New York City Police Photograph Irises of Suspects

From the NY Times: 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.

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