When Howard County police used a statewide computer network to match fingerprints from a 2-year-old sexual assault case, they became pioneers of new crime-fighting technology in Maryland.
Howard police used the Maryland Automated Fingerprint Identification System, known as MAFIS, to trace prints from an outdoor lightbulb and globe that were disconnected before a 72-year-old Jessup woman was sexually assaulted. The woman was assaulted three times over a three-month period ending in February 1989.
Police found that the prints matched those of Alfred T. Hatfield, 27, formerly of the 8900 block of Washington Blvd. in Jessup. His fingerprints had been placed on the computer system's file after his June 1989 arrest on auto theft and assault charges.
Howard police tracked Hatfield to a previous home in Wood County, Ohio, near Toledo, and joined with the Wood County sheriff's department to arrest him, marking the first apprehension by Maryland authorities with the help of the new technology.
That story was recounted last week when Gov. William Donald Schaefer officially opened the MAFIS operation at State Police headquarters in Pikesville.
The computer network will keep 700,000 fingerprints on file and be accessible to police departments throughout the state. There are terminals in Baltimore City, Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties and a joint operation for Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
"It's going to be a tremendous resource for us," said Howard Police Chief James N. Robey. The system should help his department open dormant cases, including some unsolved homicide cases up to 20 years old.
The system also will be used to screen applicants for child-care jobs, nuclear power plants and jobs that are sensitive to national security.
Schaefer welcomed the new system, but was decidedly somber during his brief remarks. He lamented the increasingly violent society that has made the technology as necessary as bulletproof vests and 9mm weapons for police officers.
"What I should be saying is 'thank you for all the equipment. It's the greatest in the world,' " he said. "But I'm depressed. We have another piece of equipment, so we can put more people in jail, so I have to get more money from taxpayers to build more jails."
Developers of the system say it will dramatically reduce the time it takes to match fingerprints manually. The computer could wrap up in four hours a search that could conceivably take 96,000 man-hours, they said. A technician said most matches can be made in as little as four minutes.
The 27 technicians at State Police headquarters and others at local police departments are putting criminal fingerprints on file. Those prints can be matched with prints taken from crimes committed several years ago as well as new cases.
But even the most strident supporters of the system warn that it will not solve all crimes.
The Howard County arrest resulted from one of 50 fingerprints county experts entered into the system. They have identified one other suspect, but have gotten negative responses to the other 48. In Baltimore County, where its own computerized system has identified 825 suspects since 1985, none of the 12 cases it has entered into the statewide system have resulted in "hits."
Paul E. Leuba, director of data services in the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the hit rate is extremely low right now because the system has just come on line.
How the system will work
This is how the Maryland Automated Fingerprint Identification System will work:
* Terminals are located at State Police headquarters and at police departments in Baltimore, and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, and Howard counties. Prince George's and Montgomery counties share a terminal. All State Police barracks will have access to the system.
* State Police agencies now are building a database of fingerprints by entering computer images of prints of people arrested for major crimes over the last several years. The system can hold 1 million prints.
* When a crime occurs, technicians from various departments will take latent prints from the crime scene and enter a computer image of the print into the system. The system can display a list of prints with similar characteristics.
* The 27 technicians then compare each database print with the latent print to search for a match. The process can take a few minutes to a few hours, a fraction of the time the task of matching fingerprints can now take.