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Law enforcement across Minnesota turning to Hennepin County Sheriff's Office for its facial recognition software

Police across Minnesota turning to Hennepin County Sheriff for facial recognition software
Police across Minnesota turning to Hennepin County Sheriff for facial recognition software 02:02

MINNEAPOLIS – Facial recognition software has become a common option to help Minnesota police identify criminal suspects.

Officers around the state enlist the help of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, the only law enforcement agency that has the technology.

Images of the unidentified person are compared to a database of Minnesota mugshots.

"We don't have driver's license photos or anything in there that we're comparing against," said a HCSO analyst.

When matches come back, HCSO's analysts don't share them with investigating officers until there's more corroboration.

"We cannot provide any live monitoring or surveillance of people," said Capt. Spencer Bakke with HCSO. 

In an example shown to WCCO, a suspected car thief's photo generated several matches. The analyst ruled out certain ones based on factors like incarceration status and age.

But one man had three of his mugshots flagged as matches.

"I checked the pawn [shop] system, and that day, the same person was wearing the exact same clothes," the analyst said.

The person also purchased an item at the pawn shop that was found in the theft suspect's vehicle.  


"I feel now that it's a strong lead, but when I would respond to the investigator, I would still say, 'This is not a positive identification. This is only a lead,'" the analyst said.

This has become a common tool that the sheriff's office says is used for all kinds of crimes.

Public data shows 1,695 searches were requested by more than 100 police agencies and task forces between Jan. 2, 2019 and Oct. 27, 2022. That's an average of more than one a day.

Concerns about facial recognition technology led Minneapolis to ban its use in 2021. Records show MPD requested a search in a homicide case six days after the ban went into effect. MPD hasn't provided an explanation.

Civil rights advocates want a statewide ban.

"The technology itself tends to be unreliable and very volatile," said Munira Mohamed with ACLU Minnesota. "We're looking at really high error rates for people who are essentially not white, so especially Black women, older people as well."

Images fed into the software are only compared to adult booking photos, not juveniles.

The data in this story was shared with WCCO by freelance journalist Sam Richards, and confirmed by the sheriff's office.

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