Imaged Prints Go Online, Cops Return to Streets

Identifying prisoners with mugshots and fingerprints was costing the Boston Police Department dearly in time and resources. The installation of a citywide imaging system completely changed the situation.

by / March 31, 1996
PROBLEM/SITUATION: Current procedures for fingerprinting and photographing criminal suspects are labor-intensive, time-consuming and hard to share.
SOLUTION: The Boston Police Department revamped its booking and identification process using imaging technology.
JURISDICTION: Boston Police Department.
VENDORS: Comnetix Computer Systems, Digital, Panasonic, Identix, Next Step, Oracle.
CONTACT: Bill Casey, Boston Police Department, 617/343-4767


By Tod Newcombe
Features Editor
When four-year-old Christopher DePina was hit by a stray bullet on the streets of Boston in September 1995, the police were able to move unusually fast in apprehending the suspect. Thanks to the department's new imaging identification system, the district captain quickly retrieved a photo of the suspect, printed copies of the photo along with a brief description and distributed the information during afternoon roll-call. By that evening, the suspect was under arrest.

As Bill Casey, deputy superintendent for the Boston Police Department, likes to point out, under the old system the cops would have "never gotten a picture of the suspect within a day. Now it's not a problem."

In what has been billed as the first system of its kind implemented in North America, the Boston Police Department has replaced all filmed mugshots and ink fingerprinting with a citywide, integrated electronic imaging identification system. Instead of transporting prisoners to a central booking facility in downtown Boston, officers at the 11 district police stations can electronically scan a prisoner's fingerprints, take digital photos and then route the images to a central server for easy storage and access.

The imaging network gives investigators timely access to information and mugshot lineups and is saving the police department $1 million in labor and transportation costs, freeing officers from prisoner transportation duties that keep them off the streets.

The Boston Police Department is also the first city to receive the Federal Bureau of Investigation's certification for electronic fingerprint submission. In August 1995, Boston police began submitting electronic fingerprint scans to the FBI in a pilot project.

According to Casey, the path to imaging began several years ago, when the Police Department did an analysis of its operations to find ways to reduce the amount of officer time spent on non-beat work. "We're trying to move over to a neighborhood policing philosophy," he said. "We wanted to examine the work that police were doing that wasn't beat-related." Immediately, the department found a big chunk of officer time -- 40,000 hours per year -- that was spent transporting prisoners from district police stations to the central booking facility, where mugshots and fingerprints were taken and classified.

Transporting prisoners was not only time-consuming, it also posed a constant safety threat to officers. Worse, only about 50 percent of the prisoners actually had fingerprints and mugshots taken; those prisoners arrested on less serious charges were just released. "As a result," commented Casey, "we had a lot of people's names on reports, but no photo or fingerprint of them."

With the strong backing of Police Commissioner Paul F. Evans, Casey enlisted the help of Michael T. Hernon, the city's chief information officer, to investigate technological alternatives to the existing transportation and booking system. Aware that stand-alone live-scan fingerprinting and digital mugshot solutions existed, the city and the police decided to innovate and issued an RFP for developing and implementing an integrated system that put both applications under one umbrella.

The bid for the $2.25 million system was won by Comnetix Computer Systems, a Canadian company that had done work with a number of provincial police forces, as well as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In October 1994, Comnetix began installing fingerprint and mugshot booking workstations at each of the 11 district stations located throughout the city. The workstations are linked via a frame relay network to a central server located at police headquarters.

Now when a suspect is arrested and brought into a district station, an officer scans the prisoner's fingerprints, takes digital photos, enters biographical information and, once everything is accepted, compresses the file and sends it to the central server at headquarters. There, a staff of fingerprint experts verify the fingerprints and classify them at four workstations.

Once the arrest record has been accepted at Central Identification, detectives can use one of 27 viewing workstations throughout headquarters and district stations for inquiry, lineup and witness viewing. One color and 12 black-and-white printers are also distributed throughout the department to make hard copies of the images.

Using the FBI's compression algorithm for fingerprints and mugshots, the department is able to store all images on a magnetic hard drive. With over 100 gigabytes of storage space, the police will have rapid access to the images stored in approximately 120,000 records that will eventually enter the system over the next three years.

According to Hernon, the project faced two significant technological challenges. "One was the requirement that the vendor integrate things that had never been integrated before. The risk was in the software development."

Another risk was the lack of an acceptable compression algorithm from the FBI. At the time the system was being installed, the FBI hadn't released their compression standards. As a result, the police had to initially store fingerprints uncompressed until the FBI algorithm became known.

On Aug. 23, 1995, Boston police transmitted their first fingerprint image to the FBI. The prints were from a suspect charged with armed robbery. Within two minutes, the FBI received the print images. Approximately two hours later, the FBI contacted Boston police and informed them that they identified the print and matched it with the suspect. The FBI was able to tell the police that the suspect had been previously arrested in North Carolina as a fugitive from justice. The next day, at the suspect's bail reduction hearing, the police presented this new evidence to the judge and were able to keep the man in jail. If the prints had been submitted to the FBI via the mail, which is how it's done by nearly all other law enforcement agencies, it would have taken up to 45 days for the prints to be processed.

According to a number of Boston's district captains, the new system has given them the equivalent of two extra police officers per shift. Instead of moving prisoners around, officers now can participate in community policing and respond to 911 emergencies. "This system has been a winner all the way," commented Hernon. "It gave us an opportunity to acquire a cutting-edge system that has saved us money and has had a significant impact on police work."

He added that other agencies, including the city's transportation police force and the Cambridge Police Department are in the process of building or enhancing their information systems so they can share images and data with Boston's imaging system. "We're beginning to see closer relationships with other police in the state," said Casey. "Soon everybody's computers are going to be talking to each other. It's just a much more efficient way of doing business."

It's also a much more efficient way of tracking down and identifying criminals.


The Boston Police Imaging Identification Management System consists of 12 Digital 486/66 booking workstations, each with an image capture card, a 19-inch color monitor, a Panasonic live video camera, an Identix fingerprint livescan unit and a Digital black-and-white, 600 dpi laser printer.

The booking workstations are linked via a frame relay wide area network to a central server: Digital's Alpha 2100 with over 100 gigabytes of hard drive storage. Also linked to the server are four verification/classification workstations, two FBI certified fingerprint printers, a color printer and 27 investigator/viewing workstations.

The system's software application was developed by Comnetix Computer Systems using the Next Step development environment and the Oracle7 database management system. The system is the first in the nation to meet the FBI's new certification standards.


According to the latest information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1993), the following percentage of agencies maintain computer files for fingerprints:
* County Police: 58%
* Municipal Police: 38%
* Sheriffs: 35%
* State Police: 43%

The BJS has no listing for computer files for mugshots.