The Latent Potential of Latent Prints

Fingerprint identification programs have begun to make life easier for the cops and much more difficult for the robbers.

by / December 31, 1998
This article tells the AFIS story -- where it started and what it does -- while the second part, appearing in the February issue, will examine the need to share data among agencies and vendors, the strength of state, regional and national networks, new advances in AFIS technology, and the dramatic results AFIS systems are having in helping to convict criminals across the country.

They came in through the bathroom window.I had made it easy for them. I left the window open to try to capture a small slice of the delta breeze on a hot Sacramento summer night. When I came home later that evening, my mistake was readily apparent. Drawers were open, a TV had been moved but not taken, some clothes were lying on the floor. Of course cash and jewelry were gone and, inexplicably, a pair of blue jeans was taken as well.

The first thing I did, of course, was call the local police. It didn't take long before an investigator was there, asking me questions and dusting horizontal surfaces with black powder to pick up prints. Magically, a big one appeared on the bathroom counter just below and to the right of the window. Half a palm and two fingertips stood out clearly on the surface the burglar had probably used to balance himself on his way down from the window ledge.

"Hey! That's great, isn't it? We can catch this guy," I said naively, remembering the Sherlock Holmes stories I had read long before. Even back then, in musty old England, a smart cop could trip up the bad guy with a good print, so why not now?

"Well, it's not that easy. We will have the print on file and, if we come up with a suspect, which, honestly, is unlikely, we can match these prints to the suspect," the detective explained.

I realized that the chance of matching that beautifully clear print to the thief who had ransacked my home was roughly equivalent to hitting the lottery. The fact was that, unlike the cop world that could be created in novels and films, the real world included thousands and thousands of inked fingerprints pressed on oversized index cards. No law enforcement agency in the world had the manpower to sift through them and solve my little mystery.

Enter AFIS

That was before the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. AFIS is a computer imaging and database system that can capture, match and compare fingerprints from a variety of sources in a few minutes. Today, if someone is arrested for any reason and booked, their prints will end up in an AFIS database. In most cases, the prints are scanned from traditional ink fingerprint cards, but in some larger jurisdictions the prints are scanned in digitally. The databases are growing and many are now linked statewide or through regional agreements, while the FBI is in the closing stages of setting up a national AFIS database.

When a print is picked up at the scene of a crime, it is also scanned in and the system searches for probable matches against the thousands of identified prints in the database. One beauty of AFIS is that it gets stronger with every print, as the new ones increase the size of the searchable database.

AFIS technology has been around since the late 1970s, but until the last several years it was cost-prohibitive for most law enforcement agencies. There were few vendors developing the technology, and almost no one saw its potential power. That is changing and, as vendors proliferate and AFIS systems and networks become accessible throughout law enforcement, the cloak of anonymity necessary for criminals to survive is being stripped away.

Father Moses

"The man you need to talk to if you want to know about AFIS is Ken Moses," Ron Everett said at the AFIS Internet conference in San Francisco. Everett is the sergeant in charge of the Identification AFIS unit of the Dallas Police Department. "Moses is where it all started, and all of us that use it to solve crimes today recognize him as the father of AFIS."

Moses, a retired detective inspector from the San Francisco Police Department, had been the key player in bringing AFIS to that city in 1984. At the conference he made a well-received presentation on its value for law enforcement.

In the early 1980s, matching latent, or crime-scene, prints to filed "10-prints" was a manual, time-consuming process. One major vendor was installing a federal AFIS system but, for the most part, rank-and-file law enforcement saw the technology as something that might be useful in the future but was, in 1980, a bit hard to believe in. Moses, a former high-school science teacher and technology buff, saw it differently. He looked at the burgeoning technology and at some of the heinous crimes in his active files, and saw an opportunity to save lives.

"We had several notable crimes that either went unsolved or took a long time to clear. In one case, there was a murder where it took us three months to catch the guy because we had to manually search our 10-print files to come up with a match," said Moses, who now runs a private company called Forensic Identification Services. "In that time, he had raped an additional four or five women. I had heard of AFIS and knew that if we had had it then, those other women would never have been raped."

Recognizing the need and having to respond to public outrage that followed the murderer's crime spree, Moses researched the AFIS system he knew was available at the time, developed by Rockwell/Printrak (now Printrak International), and began to lobby the community for support. Finding that community groups were always eager to land free speakers, Moses volunteered at every opportunity. At the meetings, he talked about cases that would have been solved within days if the city had had an AFIS system. He also talked about money, because it was going to take a bond measure to fund the project.

"It was a lot of money we needed, especially for that time. Back then, high-tech was spending $1.25 for a new jar of black dusting powder. We were asking for $1.6 million," recalled Moses.

Zero to AFIS

Even after funding, the task of purchasing the system got more difficult rather than easier. While Moses had assumed that the city would purchase the Rockwell system he was familiar with -- the only one he had even heard about -- Mayor Dianne Feinstein had just returned from a trip to Japan, where she had seen a custom AFIS system developed for Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department, and insisted the project go out for competitive bid.

"I thought it was a joke at the time," Moses explained. "I only knew of one company that was doing this, so what was the point? But NEC Technologies had created this system for Japan, and the mayor wanted them included. The truth was that they had developed the system without ever planning on marketing it, but Feinstein convinced them to respond to our RFP. In addition to Rockwell and NEC, we also received a response from a company that had created an AFIS-style system for Scotland Yard. From zero, San Francisco was the suddenly the first law enforcement agency in the world that had purchased AFIS from a competitive bid. I think it not only showed us what we could get and do with technology, it also made the vendors realize we were a large new market for their products."

With unique support from the community, San Francisco's AFIS project was funded, NEC got the bid, and the system went online in February 1984, immediately producing dramatic results.

Night of a Thousand Crimes

"When we finally went online, we solved -- and I am speaking literally -- a thousand crimes overnight. We had all these fingerprints from murders and burglaries and rapes, and when we started entering them, the system just went bananas," Moses said. "One out of five latent prints were hitting and identifying people from our 10-print database. Before, it had been a situation where we might have a fingerprint on a gun that nobody could do anything with. These prints were just lying around. But once AFIS went online, for 24 hours a day, for weeks on end, we were scanning print cards and solving crimes."

The sheer number of hits actually ended up creating a new problem for San Francisco. For everyone but the bad guys, it was a good problem to have.

The District Attorney's Office suddenly found itself with more cases than it had prosecutors to handle. The AFIS hits had flooded the office with cases supported by some of the best evidence a law enforcement professional could hope for -- matching fingerprints -- and the DA had to petition county supervisors for five new prosecutors within a couple of months of the system coming online.

The city's success was so stunning that newspapers, magazines and TV shows picked up the story, and what had once seemed like an oddity became a must-have for large jurisdictions. Within a year of San Francisco's AFIS debut, nearly 50 AFIS systems dotted the country. Today, AFIS is a key law enforcement tool in nearly every major American city, and in many cases law enforcement agencies have linked the system in state and regional networks. New advances in the technology, such as full palm print digital scanners -- a palm print is often what's found at the scene of a crime -- and desktop systems, announced by several vendors over the past year, are making the technology more affordable and effective.

Still, the industry faces some challenges. The biggest is coming up with an agreement between vendors to standardize the way latent prints are analyzed by the computer, so that systems from different vendors can share the information. Because of vendor resistance to the concept, this agreement is far in the future, if it comes at all. In the meantime, AFIS technology is out there helping cops solve crimes more quickly than ever before.

Raymond Dussault is a Sacramento, Calif.-based writer and a research director for the Law Enforcement Technology Acquisition Project. Email