When Demarkus Higginbotham was robbing people at ATMs in Detroit, his distinctive tattoos led to his capture. Police pulled images of them from security cameras and printed them on fliers that were circulated until someone identified him. The flyers were an effective but slow means to identification, says the Detroit Free Press. Today, police could do it faster through a tattoos database created by a Michigan State University professor. “Every tattoo has some story behind it, especially those which are associated with criminals,” said Anil Jain, a distinguished professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University, who created Tattoo-ID, a database of tattoos taken from booking photos and other sources.
Jain’s database now includes more than 100,000 images of tattoos and is the electronic equivalent of the flyers Detroit police used to catch Higginbotham. Michigan State Police provided many of the initial images and use the database to help with their work. Jain began creating the database in 2009 at MSU with a grant from the FBI. The university later licensed it to MorphoTrak, a biometric company with headquarters in Anaheim, Ca., that sells access to it to police across the U.S. and Canada. Jain said the database made sense because of the growing number of people who have tattoos. By some estimates, as many as one-third of young adults in the U.S. now have a tattoo. Tattoos are used to signify membership in most of the world’s large criminal gangs, Jain said. Even if a suspect is being arrested for the first time, investigators can learn from the tattoo the gang affiliation of the wearer.