Solving crimes with simply the snap of a finger
More Washington area police using mobile print reader, but critics worry about privacy

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.

Such military technology is reaching the local level because of "a tremendous amount of money" dedicated to research and development in the military, said Roger Morrison, director of federal sales for Datastrip, the company that makes the mobile fingerprint/iris scan units.

Morrison said fingerprint and iris scan devices are "rapidly being embraced by law enforcement as the next big thing." Mobile fingerprint devices are used in places such as Los Angeles, Charleston, S.C., and Austin.

Civil rights questions

But civil rights activists, including Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, are concerned about the new tools. He questioned whether police agencies should have this type of anti-terrorism grant.

"This is money from the Department of Homeland Security. There should be a connection to terrorism in some way," Calabrese said. "This doesn't seem like anti-terrorism. It seems like mass surveillance of the innocent population."

He said criminal investigations would benefit if police knew the identities of everyone on the streets. "But that would terrorize ordinary people and make them fear their government," he said.

Local agencies are hoping that the FBI, which is upgrading its fingerprint repository, will add iris scans, DNA and voice recognition.

"The technology is the easy part," said Stephen L. Morris, deputy assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services division. "The challenge we face is being able to navigate through policies and privacy issues -- how we use it, store it and disseminate it."

Police say that unless suspects are under arrest, they can decline the fingerprint scans and any other biometric collection. But few do, officers say.

"People are intrigued by it," said Alexandria Cmdr. Charles Bailey, who heads the department's Crime Scene Investigation Section and is in charge of the agency's mobile fingerprint devices.

He said suspects are often surprised by the device and don't know what to expect, or they don't believe officers when they explain what it can do. "Some people think it's a joke," he said.

It works by connecting to fingerprint and mug shot databases across the region and is able to search more than 1.5 million entries.

Fairfax recently bought 10 upgraded units, which are about the size of an iPod and connect to the officer's mobile phone or PDA. In one case several weeks ago, Fairfax Officer Brian Bowers stopped a man in a car who had illegally tinted his windows. The man said he didn't have a driver's license but agreed to let Bowers scan his fingers. Within minutes, Bowers learned that the man was a registered sex offender who had violated his probation.

In another case, Bowers stopped a woman who cut him off in traffic. She said she didn't have a driver's license with her, and she gave Bowers a false name. A fingerprint scan revealed that she had a suspended license and that she was employed as a bus driver in Arlington County.

Another time, Fairfax officers arrived at a home to serve a warrant on a man wanted for domestic violence. The man's wife answered the door and said he wasn't home. Bowers and another officer searched the house and found a man hiding in a closet who said he was the woman's brother-in-law.

"We had no way to prove who he was or wasn't," Bowers said.

But the man agreed to have his finger scanned, and the officers learned that he was the man they were looking for.

Bowers said that he uses the device about once each shift and that it has never caused a bad experience with a suspect or a criminal.

"More often than not, we've gotten positive reaction from criminals who say: 'That's pretty neat. That's amazing,' " he said. "I think it's only going to get better and better."

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