Milwaukee County Jail Unveils Machines that Scan Inmates' Irises

May 16, 2017

If someone's iris matches records in a national database, information about that person will pop up on a screen in the jail
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl WUWM

For the last couple of months, people arriving to and departing from Milwaukee County's jail have had their eyes scanned. That's in addition to having their fingerprints taken during the booking process.

Commander Aaron Dobson says the scans are an extra step to ensure proper identification. "No two people have the same iris."

Dobson and his staff showed the scanning devices to the media last week. The scanners are about the size of a digital camera. They're hooked up to a computer, which checks the image of a person's iris against others in a national database.

Corrections Officer William Whitinger demonstrated. He used the device to take photos of Sean Mullin, who heads BI2 Technologies. That's the company that supplies the scanning devices and manages the database.

"When you search by iris, he (Mullin) stands in front of the camera and it takes the picture of the iris, right there. Now it's currently scanning the iris, covering the database to see what comes up," Whitinger said.

If the iris image matches one in the system, information about the person pops up on a screen, along with his or her photo, in about 20 seconds.

Commander Dobson says the scan helps jail workers confirm the identity of people they take into custody, and track them, throughout their time in the criminal justice complex.

"We do it incoming, and even if they leave for court and are coming back in an hour, we make sure and do an iris scan to make sure we're sending the right person to court," Dobson says.

Dobson says the county soon will equip patrol cars with the iris-scanning cameras, joining dozens of law enforcement agencies that have been adopting the technology.

"There are approximately 150 other agencies in the country that are using this system and using it successfully. There are close to a million irises already in the registry -- people in the registry -- and that's growing as we speak," Dobson says.

Yet while the use of iris scans is growing, the technology is not meant to replace fingerprint records, according to Sean Mullin of BI2 Technologies. He says detectives still need fingerprint records to investigate crimes.

"You do not leave a digital copy of your iris at a crime scene. You don’t leave it on a weapon. You don't leave it on a doorknob. It can't be used against the person forensically," Mullin says.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office is the first agency in Wisconsin to start using the iris scans.