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Sunday, November 15, 2020

A Short History Of Scientific Criminal Identification

     In 1901, Scotland Yard became the first law enforcement agency in the world to routinely fingerprint its arrestees. Fingerprint identification came to America in 1904 when the St. Louis Police Department established its fingerprint bureau. Before fingerprinting, arrestees were identified by sets of eleven body measurements, a system created in the 1870s by the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon. By 1914, the year of Bertillon's death, fingerprinting had replaced anthropometry or Bertillonage in every country except the United States where, in many jurisdictions, the outdated system was used until the 1920s.

     Because a set of inked, rolled-on fingerprint impressions can be classified or grouped into ridge patterns--loops, whorls, and arches--arrestees who use aliases can be physically identified. Through centralized fingerprint repositories comprised of millions of fingerprint cards, individual arrest histories can be maintained on habitual offenders. These fingerprint collections have been responsible for the apprehension of tens of thousands of fugitives.

     Beyond the use of fingerprinting to maintain crime records and catch repeat offenders and fugitives, crime scene finger marks--so called latent fingerprints--constitute one of the most common methods of linking suspects to the sites of their crimes. While latents can be made visible by various chemicals, iodine fuming, and laser technology, the most popular method of identifying and preserving fingerprints, particularly on hard surfaces, involves the use of fingerprint powder and special lifting tape.

     Crime scene latents can now be scanned into a massive computer--the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)--and matched to single fingerprints in the data base. Identifying unknown crime scene latents involves both the ability to solve a crime and to prove who committed it.

     Perhaps the three most significant developments in the history of law enforcement are fingerprint classification, AFIS, and the cutting edge science of DNA "fingerprinting" that burst upon the scene in the mid-1990s. 

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