Match Maker

State police now have a Web-based, high-def fingerprint tool to help solve cases

March 17, 2009|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

Thanks to an upgraded, $12 million fingerprinting system, the state expects to make tens of thousands of hits on previously unmatchable fingerprints, and has already made more than 150 matches in Howard County alone.

The new Maryland Automated Fingerprint Identification System allows law enforcement officials to make quicker, more accurate fingerprint hits with a Web-based, digitized system by producing high-definition fingerprint images - a system that state and law enforcement officials say is helping them make hits at a pace they've never seen.

"The state hit the jackpot with this one," said Robert Bartley, director of forensic services for the Howard County Police Department. "It's a little time-consuming, but boy does it pay off. ... I've been doing fingerprint work for 41 years, and I never thought I'd see a system like this."

The Howard County Police Department began using the system in November. It was the first agency to report to the state that it was able to solve cold cases because of the new system.

Since Nov. 1, the department has been able to match prints from at least 152 old cases that the previous system didn't match, including a 1979 rape case, a 1981 robbery and a 1982 burglary, Bartley said.

"It was unbelievable," Bartley said. "I hit all these old cases."

Bartley said he can now match about 50 prints in a month's time. With the old system, the most he matched in a month was 14.

Statewide, more than 230,000 prints from unsolved cases were put into the new system, said Ron Brothers, chief information officer for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He said the state expects to get 50,000 hits off those old prints with the new MAFIS.

Every major law enforcement agency in the state is plugged into the new system, Brothers said.

"We can get down to having much more of a partial print," he said. The new system can also run partial palm prints, while the older system couldn't run palm prints at all.

With the old system, if a person was arrested 20 times, only one fingerprint card was kept in the system. Now, all 20 cards are digitally stored, increasing the likelihood that a match can be made. The old system marked only certain points of a print. The new system traces fingerprints and also marks print pattern types, increasing accuracy and precision.

The previous version was installed in 1990 and used hard-wired circuit boards that plugged into a server to make print matches.

"It's time-consuming, but it's unbelievable what it picks up," Bartley said. "Any time that you pick up an old sexual assault case ... and you see that guy has a history, you feel that it's truly paid off."

Some of the prints date as far back as 1935, said Ravi Bhayankar, manager of applications for the correctional services department.

"We have the technology now that gives law enforcement much better opportunities to match fingerprints and thus solve crimes," Brothers said.

It takes three to four minutes to enter a print, based on its quality, which is about twice as long as it used to take. The new system, however, scans at a much higher resolution and brings up mug shots with the prints.

Once the system makes a hit, it sends the fingerprint examiner the best three to five matches. The examiners can print the cards from their work stations. Before, they had to drive to Baltimore County once a week to pick up hard copies of the fingerprint cards.

The old system stores prints at 500 pixels per inch, but the new system stores them at 1,000 pixels per inch, Brothers said. And all the fingerprint cards were digitized so that they can be searched on the database.

"Just like any technology, it was old, obsolete," Brothers said of the previous MAFIS version.

Fingerprint evidence has been a mainstay of forensics for nearly a century. But the reliability of the conclusions reached in fingerprint examinations has come under scrutiny in recent years. In 2007, a Baltimore County judge ruled that fingerprint evidence was not reliable enough to be used in a capital murder case, calling it a "subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to be infallible."

While the new MAFIS won't improve the quality of the print collected by police, it produces a higher-resolution image of the print that is available in a quicker and more easily accessible fashion.

"It does not improve reliability, but does improve readability," said correctional services department spokesman Rick Binetti, likening the technology to the clarity of a high-definition television versus that of an analog TV.

In another aspect of the project, the state is offering police agencies a technology called "Fast ID." Law enforcement officers in Maryland can take fingerprints from the road with a $1,500 hand-held device that hooks up to the laptop computers in their cruisers, a technology that wasn't available before. If the person's fingerprint comes up in the system, basic information about the person shows up on the laptop, including a mug shot.

Officers are also able to search the prints in the state fingerprint database from their cars in lieu of taking a person who has been pulled over to a police station to be printed.

The portable system should report a hit back to the officer within a couple of minutes, Bhayankar said. At the station, it would take about 20 minutes to pull a full report.

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