May 30--Ah, the casino. A place to lose your cares, throw caution to the wind -- and do it all under the cold, unblinking eye of a camera digitally recording your every move.
In the three state-regulated casinos recently opened in Broward County, law-enforcement agents watch the casino floor with hundreds of cameras that can zoom in to reveal the smallest of details, down to the serial number on that $5 bill you just fed into the Wheel of Fortune slot machine. Private security forces do the same at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino near Hollywood.
South Florida's casinos have embraced digital technology to detect slots cheats and crack down on scam artists. Long gone are mechanical devices like the "monkey paw" device once used by slots cheaters to trigger jackpots. Today's slot machines are digital, and so are the surveillance methods.
At Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, where slot machines started running in November, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement maintains an office equipped with a bank of monitors and the kind of surveillance technology preferred by many Las Vegas casinos.
"There are no blind spots on the casino floor. Every square inch is covered," said Michael Mann, FDLE assistant special agent in charge.
Each state-regulated casino has an FDLE office in it, to supplement the casino's private security team. One of the state requirements for opening is a test to make sure every slot machine is fully in view of a surveillance camera. FDLE agents have even attended a course in casino surveillance offered by Atlantic Cape Community College in Atlantic City.
Although course coordinator Thomas Giardina won't give away too many secrets, he will say that surveillance-camera operators look for suspicious behavior, such as "rubbernecking" -- looking around to see if anyone is watching -- or wearing bulky clothes that are too heavy for the weather.
Occasionally, police learn just by watching, he said.
"Sometimes we watch them and let them get away with it for a few minutes," he said. "We want to see what wonderful little trick they have."
Digital recording has three big advantages, casino officials say: easy storage, clear pictures and easy retrieval. The video is stored on computer servers, not bulky videotapes from VCRs. When operators freeze a recording to look at something more closely, they see a clear picture -- no line across the screen, as often happens with VCR tapes that are used over and over.
And retrieval of video from a computer is super-fast, which helps in the case of a crime or a dispute with patrons.
"We can review any camera in a matter of seconds. The technology is just unbelieveable. Instead of pulling tape out of the library, we have almost instant retrieval," said Chris Hock, director of surveillance at Mardi Gras Racetrack and Gaming Center in Hallandale Beach. "With this technology, I can go right to a dollar bill and read every number off of it."
Other technologies also are in the mix as well. Facial-recognition software, which triggered a civil-liberties debate when police used it to scan 2001 Super Bowl crowds in Tampa, is being employed by Florida casinos, according to FDLE's Mann, although he won't say exactly where.
"Facial-recognition programs do exist and are in use by the casinos," Mann said. "They've been around for seven or eight years. They're in use in many casinos and, yes, in some casinos in Florida."
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Critics say the software isn't cut out for casinos. It works best when the camera gets a straight-on shot of a person's entire face. Casinos, with lots of people milling around, are less than ideal.
"The facial-recognition software is really geared toward table games, where you have a direct look at the people," said Edward Jenkins, director of gaming compliance and regulations for the Seminole Gaming Commission.