Improved access to biometric records may soon help crime scene investigators identify suspects faster and more accurately in Georgia.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) went live with an upgraded Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) on Monday, June 18. The technology now allows local law enforcement agencies to capture and compare palm print scans and more efficiently utilize the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).
One of the agencies already using the upgraded database is the Richmond County Sheriff’s Crime Scene Unit. Tom Johnson, an investigator with the unit, said he already has run several prints — including one palm print — through the system. Johnson said there are major differences between the old and new programs, such as how a print is searched for in the database.
One of the most valuable changes is the ability to search for palm print matches. Previously the GBI AFIS system wouldn’t accept scans of palm prints. But those prints have high value to officers working a crime scene.
Johnson said in many cases, particularly those involving stolen vehicles or homicides, palm prints are all that remains because criminals are conscious of not using their fingers to leave a mark. But if they lean down and extend with their palms, those spots can be captured by investigators and used as evidence.
Prior to the upgraded GBI AFIS system there was no way for county law enforcement agencies to submit and run a palm print against the state database to determine a match. The best Richmond County officers could do is capture a palm print at a scene, and then ask a suspect to submit their own to do a side-by-side comparison.
Although that method works in controlled situations, it isn’t applicable during every investigation.
“If we had no suspect in mind and all we got from a scene is a palm print — which does happen frequently — now we have the ability to actually scan that palm print in, run it through the database and get a suspect from it,” Johnson said. “They are just as reliable as fingerprints.”
The system upgrade also is leading to a more comprehensive database. Johnson explained that in the past — if a fingerprint card was sent into the GBI database, and if that person was re-arrested — the new fingerprint scan replaced the old one, even if the new one was captured at lower resolution.
Now all captured scans will be maintained in the system, which improves the chance of matching a fresh fingerprint with the correct suspect if the person has been printed previously. Palm prints are new, however, so building up a repository of those prints in the state database will take some time.
Johnson added that improved accessibility to the FBI’s IAFIS database will also be handy. He said that while prints recorded by officers always are transmitted to the FBI, the system upgrade makes it easier. In years past, officers had to log in to a different program and re-transmit all the information to the FBI. The new GBI program now handles that seamlessly.
Out in the field, officers also have some new equipment in order to capture finger and palm print images. The prints are all still put on a fingerprint card, but now investigators have a portable scanner with a separate camera for capturing prints digitally. Previously crime scene workers in Richmond County only had a portable camera that took scanned images at one resolution.
The new scanner can be fine-tuned for the highest quality resolution, which should improve overall accuracy of the prints. Those print scans can be saved and uploaded back at the office once an investigation is done.
The one thing still missing from Richmond County’s arsenal for crime scene investigations is an all-encompassing mobile platform. Once scanned, a print captured at a scene still needs to be taken back to the office and manually uploaded to a computer, and then matched against a database.
Johnson said he’s aware of fingerprint readers that use cellphone technology to take a print from an apprehended suspect and transmit that image to a database to find a match. But he hasn’t seen a particular law enforcement agency that can use a similar mobile system with fingerprints lifted from a crime scene.
“An investigator working a homicide scene finds a print and can take an image of that print and email it back to us, and we can run it that way,” Johnson said. “But we don’t have the capability when we’re out in the field to run it automatically through a laptop.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.