Mobile print reader makes D.C. area crime-solving a snap

Lt. John V. Byrd of the Fairfax County police holds a mobile fingerprint reader.
Lt. John V. Byrd of the Fairfax County police holds a mobile fingerprint reader. (Tom Jackman/the Washington Post)
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By Allison Klein
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Prince George's County police found two men shot in the back of the head and dumped in a Suitland cemetery. Detectives identified one man by the driver's license in his pocket, but the second had no ID. Police needed to know his name and fast. The first 24 hours are the most important in a homicide case.

Investigators called Alexandria police, who had a gadget straight out of a "CSI" spinoff: a mobile fingerprint reader. Officers got to the cemetery with the device, scanned the dead man's fingers and identified him within three minutes. Detectives made an arrest days later. Without the device, police would have waited at least 36 hours for an autopsy, officials said.

The fingerprint system, based on technology developed for the military, has helped police in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland solve countless cases as officers use the devices on the street and during traffic stops.

Fairfax County police were the first in the region to use the devices, and they have been spreading to departments across the Washington area. Montgomery County police have a few on the street and put out a dozen last week. Prince George's recently started using several they consider experimental. And District police just got about 20 they plan to roll out soon.

More and more police departments are relying on high-tech tools to solve crimes, and the science is getting more sophisticated. With a simple upgrade, for example, the fingerprint readers can take a picture of a suspect's eyes and use the pattern of the iris for identification. Police say they hope the iris scanners will hit the streets in the next several years, a development civil rights activists say could lead to a troubling and unwanted surveillance of the general public.

The fingerprint devices came to the region in 2007 through a $14 million grant Fairfax received from the Department of Homeland Security. They cost about $2,300 each and work through remote cellular technology. That money spread the technology to other departments as well.

When a fingerprint is scanned, it is electronically matched against a police database of more than 1 million prints. If there's a hit, it comes back within minutes, often with a picture of the suspect. Officers say participation is voluntary unless a suspect is under arrest.

"They are pretty incredible," said Prince George's Maj. Joseph McCann, the officer who called for help in the cemetery months before his agency got the devices. "It would have taken us days to identify that person."

Fairfax police deployed the device recently to identify an unconscious woman who had been in a traffic accident. In Montgomery, police used it a few weeks ago to arrest a robbery suspect who was lying about his identity. And in Alexandria, it was key in detaining a man who was part of an identity theft ring.

Military-based technology

The units have become part of a trend of military technology trickling down to local police agencies, often through federal grants. Examples include computerized license plate readers first used by the Border Patrol and now used by police to find stolen cars. In 2006, the District was the first department in the area to get ShotSpotter, a military application that pinpoints the location of gunfire.

And the mobile fingerprint devices also contain technology used in Iraq and Afghanistan: a facial recognition camera, allowing officers to take pictures of a suspect on the street and electronically compare facial features to a database of mug shots. It works in minutes.

The iris scan technology is being used in combat zones, but some jurisdictions across the country are using the application to track sex offenders, and others use it to help identify missing children or seniors.

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