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Monday, April 26, 2021

Pioneers of Fingerprint Identification

     In 1901, Scotland Yard became the world's first law enforcement agency to routinely fingerprint its arrestees. Fingerprints came to America in 1904 when the St. Louis Police Department established its fingerprint bureau. Before fingerprinting, arrestees in Europe and America, beginning in the late 1870s, were identified by sets of eleven body measurements, a system created by the Frenchman, Alphonse Bertillon. By 1914, the year of Bertillon's death, fingerprinting had replaced anthropometry in every county but the United States where, in several jurisdictions, the outdated, cumbersome identification system stuck around until the early 1920s. Until Alphonse Bertillon and the fingerprint pioneers came up with methods of scientifically identifying criminals, law enforcement remained in the dark ages. For this reason, Alphonse Bertillon is considered one of the founding fathers of modern policing.

     Beyond the use of fingerprint science to maintain and classify arrest records, and to identify arrestees who are wanted in other jurisdictions, crime scene fingermarks, so-called latent fingerprints--constitute one of the most common forensic techniques of linking suspects to the sites of their offenses. While latent prints can be made visible by various chemicals, iodine fuming, superglue fumes, and laser technology, the most common method of bringing out and preserving this type of crime scene evidence, particularly on hard surfaces, involves the application of a fine powder and lifting tape. (This explains the phrase, the latent was lifted from the scene.)

     In 1911, a  Chicago judge, in a first of its kind case, allowed a latent fingerprint into evidence as proof of the defendant's guilt. Since then, crime scene latent fingerprint identifications have sent tens of thousands of criminals to prison. The beauty of crime scene fingerprint examination involves the fact it doesn't take high technology, or great skill and education to recover this form of trace evidence. Moreover, the comparison of crime scene latents and known fingerprints does not require an advanced degree in science. Jurors can look at a courtroom exhibit in the form of side-by-side, enlarged photographs of the two prints depicting their points of joint identify. Unlike DNA identification which requires a leap of faith in science, the matching of a known and unknown fingerprint simply requires good eyesight, and faith in the integrity of the evidence. (Granted, there have been lapses in the fingerprint integrity aspect of latent fingerprint identification.)

     Today, crime scene latents can be fed into a supercomputer--the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)--and matched with single, digitized fingerprints stored in the computer's massive data base. Identifying unknown crime scene latents this way is one of the few instances where forensic scientists can solve and prove cases. When AFIS became operational in the late 1980s, crusaders for the professionalization of criminal investigation, and the increased use of forensic science in crime solving, envisioned the dawn of a new era in law enforcement much like the introduction of fingerprint science at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

     America's forensic science pioneers of the early Twentieth Century hoped for a future in which the police would defeat crime through latent fingerprint identification and other forms of forensic science. These early crusaders for scientific crime investigation could not have foreseen how the war on drugs would drain law enforcement resources away from forensic science and criminal investigation. These men would have been shocked and dismayed by the low status and poor results of crime solving in modern law enforcement. 

1 comment:

  1. Jim, at the previous time fingerprint check or background is rarely used. Nowadays, the criminal records are most popular just because of increase in the crimes. The background check is mostly used in many causes like employment, child care, rental case etc.

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