The truth about law enforcement's use of facial recognition technology

By Roger Rodriguez 

We all know that technology and automation make us more efficient in our lives and our jobs – think of the way you save a few precious seconds by telling your mobile device to dial a phone number instead of manually pushing buttons. As a retired police officer, I have been alarmed to see comments in recent months by privacy activists, and even some policymakers, suggesting that it should be harder for law enforcement to use technology to do their jobs more efficiently. 

Facial recognition is an important crime-fighting technology – yet certain groups and media outlets have deemed it a law enforcement surveillance tool that infringes on privacy. This is not correct. The reality is that facial recognition is a proven technology that helps investigators prevent and solve crimes. It is not used to continuously surveil the public or target specific groups, as has some have suggested. Law enforcement officials use it to more efficiently solve crimes, ensuring public safety and ultimately saving lives.

Facial recognition software quickly compares one face with a lot of other faces to see if there is a potential match. That’s it. Cops do the same thing every day in a manual way, by knocking on doors with a photo, or having crime victims look through hundreds of mugshot photos; facial recognition just automates the process. The technology does not replace anything in criminal investigations except for time and effort – and when used properly, it is a valuable tool in the investigative process that can generate a strong investigative lead.

Despite alarmist claims by some groups that facial recognition could ensnare a lot of innocent people who are inaccurately identified, the fact is that arrests are not made based on facial recognition results alone; those results simply provide the investigating officer with a lead. It’s no different from finding a face in a hard-copy jail mugshot book and looking for more information on that person, or from John Q. Public calling a police tip line on a subject he saw on the news or on a “wanted” flyer. An arrest cannot be made on the called-in tip alone; it is a lead that must be investigated further before you can put cuffs on someone.

While I support and welcome oversight of law enforcement technology use, I also believe that every crime victim deserves the same level of attention and closure in their unique case, and law enforcement has a responsibility to do all it can during an investigation to quickly identify an unknown suspect. If facial recognition technology can ensure the safety of an investigating officer through identity validation in the field, or if it can bring closure to victims of crime, then it should be readily available and widely used.

The bottom line is that facial recognition technology is not what its detractors suggest – it is neither a surveillance tool nor a way to arrest or question the innocent; it simply compares one face with another. It is an important tool that can help fight crime and protect citizens, and it has become more critical as criminals use increasingly sophisticated methods to obtain false identities. When it comes to public debate about facial recognition and other technologies used by law enforcement, a healthy dose of reality is needed to put the alarmist rhetoric in its place.

Roger Rodriguez served more than 20 years with the NYPD, where he spearheaded the department’s first dedicated facial recognition unit and helped develop the Real Time Crime Center. He is currently director of business development at Vigilant Solutions. He can be reached at



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