Even Sherlock Holmes would have been impressed!

Ever since the days of Sherlock Holmes, criminal investigators have believed that in every crime the perpetrator leaves
something of his/her self at the crime scene and takes something with him/her from the crime scene.  The problem was how to get the information from the crime scene to convict a criminal.  Sherlock Holmes believed in fingerprints but even if you found fingerprints at the scene, it was nearly impossible to connect them to the perpetrator unless you already knew who the person was or had a darn good idea of who had committed the crime. For example, Chicago alone had over 7 million set of fingerprints of individuals by the time I became a police officer.

There was another problem when all law enforcement had to solve a crime were fingerprints.  A person’s prints were on file in very few or very many different places.  For example, I noted Chicago’s fingerprint files above.  But if the person had been arrested on a minor crime in a suburb(s), Chicago might not have that person’s print – and vice versa.  This could be meaningful in certain types of crimes.

If, in Naperville and several other suburbs, a person had been arrested for criminal damage to property but the several municipal attorneys thought that it was such minor damage that it may have been an accident, that person may have been charged with a misdemeanor or not charged at all.  However that same person may, two weeks later, be arrested in Chicago because he/she was caught inside a house where they had broken a window and climbed through.  There would be no way for Chicago to know that the person they had caught ‘in the act of burgling” had been arrested elsewhere for a similar crime.  Damage to property was, in such a case, a precursor or an actual attempt to enter a building.

Another situation would happen if someone were arrested on a federal crime but never arrested in Chicago; those prints would not usually be connected to Chicago.  It would take a very conscious officer to make sure that any fingerprints they retrieved from a crime scene would be shared with other jurisdictions, including the FBI.   The FBI had to rely on the other jurisdictions to give them copies of the fingerprints they had.  Sometimes it would happen.  Sometimes, not.  Larger cities such as Chicago would routinely send the prints they received into the FBI. This is how the agency collected such a large number of fingerprints but smaller towns and less populated states would often not bother with the extra work of sending anything to the FBI.

The ‘80s improved forensic science evidence in ways that would never have occurred to Sherlock Holmes.  By the ‘80s computers were becoming more common and useful.  There was talk of creating some kind of database of fingerprints that would be nationwide.  That is when AFIS came along.  That acronym is for Automated Fingerprint Identification System that is part of the FBI’s national law enforcement functions.  The FBI fingerprint database is beyond anything anyone expected.

Prints are no longer done with ink on paper but rather ink on glass and they are immediately uploaded to our local and national data bases.   You’ll get a fast (usually minutes) reply from even the FBI about any warrants, etc. nationwide.  AFIS now has all 50 states hooked up to its database of over 70 million persons’ fingerprints.  Computers doing matches between latent prints and prints on file the results are not only more accurate but they are much, much faster.

That sure would have helped when I arrested a couple of bustouts in an old BMW – with 2 sawed-off shotguns, a rifle, a handgun a huge amount of burglary tools and, oh yeah, and all the nice clean and folded clothes above all the shit they didn’t want us to find.  When I ran the prints through our files I found both guys had long rap sheets so they got busted for violation of parole.  But I went a step further and sent the prints to the FBI.  That took a week of searching and we finally discovered that one of the guys was wanted on a murder warrant from Texas.  Glad I got him off the streets until I learned that some Judge released the guy on minimal bond because ???  I never did find out why he got released but that delay of a week caused a major problem.

However, you can understand how frustrating it was for a police officer to have to wait for days and, yes, sometimes weeks to get information about fingerprints.  The speed in which the information can be matched to potential perpetrator, especially for fingerprints is not only amazing, it has become a major reason some types of crimes are solved so quickly.  However, unlike fingerprints, there have been some questionable ways that law enforcement has used to solve crimes.

Filed under: Criminal Justice, Law

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