Fairfax Goes High Tech to Finger Criminals

A mobile automated fingerprint monitor can help identify suspects or victims without documentation.
A mobile automated fingerprint monitor can help identify suspects or victims without documentation. (By Tom Jackman -- The Washington Post)
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

Fairfax County police have a new tool that will allow officers to quickly identify someone on the street, and with the help of a federal homeland security grant, they are spreading the technology to departments throughout Northern Virginia.

The portable Automated Fingerprint Identification System can scan two index fingers and then search for a match among the million or so fingerprint sets on file in Northern Virginia and the District, Fairfax Lt. John V. Byrd said. If a person's fingerprints are on file, a match will come back in about 30 seconds, often with a photograph of the person as well.

"This has the possibility," Byrd said, "to be the most effective tool for police since the two-way radio."

The portable system, no bigger than an average hardback, also can take a photo of a person and search for matches there, too, although that system is less exact and there are fewer photos than fingerprints in the database, Byrd said.

The machine can be used to identify people who aren't carrying a driver's license or other identification, who are unconscious at an accident or crime scene or who have raised an officer's suspicions with the name or identification they did provide. But Byrd noted that officers cannot force people to provide their fingerprints or photograph. Unless a person has been arrested, it must be voluntary.

Fairfax police say they think the technology will significantly improve their abilities to track criminals, gather gang intelligence, combat terrorism and solve crimes, Byrd said. "An officer on the street will be able to identify a person that he may or may not have been able to identify through other techniques," he said.

Fairfax police, who launched the regional fingerprint system NOVARIS in the early 1980s, won a $14 million grant from the Office of Homeland Security in 2005 and purchased 50 of the units. Some will be distributed to Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties, as well as to Fairfax City, Vienna, Herndon and Alexandria, Byrd said.

The majority of the portable units will stay in Fairfax County, although they will not be placed in patrol cars. Byrd said a number of different squads would be vying for the machines, and he said the crime scene and accident reconstruction units would probably be the most likely to get them, along with the county's eight district stations.

The machines cost about $2,200 apiece and are made by Datastrip Inc., a British company that describes itself as a world leader in mobile identification technology. The machines use cellphone technology to communicate with databases, and Byrd said he could submit a couple of fingerprints in 10 seconds, and get a response 20 seconds later.

The units are also being used in Harris County, Tex. (Houston area), and Pinellas County, Fla. (Tampa Bay). But Fairfax is the first jurisdiction to use machines that feature both fingerprint and photo recognition technology, Byrd said.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office has been using 50 mobile units for two years, Sgt. Dana Mackey of the Houston office said. The units are used mainly by the organized crime and criminal warrants sections, she said.

"It's going very well; we're very pleased with them," Mackey said. "It's another way to confirm the identity of the subjects."

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