After the California Justice Department identified the Night Stalker murder suspect the first time it fired up its new automated fingerprint matching system, an official of the Massachusetts company that manufactured the system said his staff was "on Cloud Nine."
Not only did the $22.4-million system designed by NEC Information Systems perform a public service, but it showed the world that the high-priced technology was worth its salt.
The event may be a watershed for the emerging market in computerized equipment designed to automatically match fragments of fingerprints against voluminous fingerprints of previous offenders.
Joe Phillips, national director of fingerprint systems for NEC Information Systems, a Boxborough, Mass., subsidiary of Tokyo-based NEC Inc., estimates the market among law enforcement agencies for fingerprint computers at $2 billion over the next 10 years.
Although automated fingerprint matching technology has been around for about 10 years, so far only about 23 law enforcement agencies in this country have purchased systems, primarily because of their formidable price tags, which start at about $1 million.
In turn, only a handful of companies have entered the field of supplying fingerprint technology to law enforcement agencies because of high development costs, the arduous process of negotiating with government agencies and what some believe to be a relatively small potential market.
But the move to computerize criminal fingerprints is now gaining momentum nationwide as the speed and accuracy of the technology improves and reports spread of its feats at catching criminals.
Also, some law enforcement agencies figure that in the long run they can save money by computerizing fingerprint records that today are routinely checked by hand in processing arrests and applications for professional, gun and alcohol licenses. The California Department of Justice alone expects to save $2 million a year in staff salaries by computerizing the state's 5 million fingerprint cards.
Now that fingerprint technology has a track record, legislatures, city councils and county governments in more cases are agreeing to foot the bill for computer systems.
R. E. (Dick) Snyder, president and chief executive of Del La Rue Printrak, an Anaheim-based firm that leads its industry with 27 operating automated fingerprint systems installed in the United States and abroad, said that, in the last year, the number of police agencies that have obtained funding for automated fingerprint systems has almost tripled.
Currently, he said, Chicago and the Regional Justice Information System in St. Louis are shopping for automated systems. In all, he said, 25 cities, counties and state agencies anticipate going out to bid this year on systems. They include Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Massachusetts, Florida and Michigan and the cities of New York and Dallas.
NEC obtained a $22.4-million contract to install the main Cal-ID computerized fingerprint system in Sacramento, which will be the largest and most sophisticated in the nation.
NEC's Phillips predicts that the development of local or regional computer systems for fingerprint matching is only the first step. Next will be the task of tying all of the systems together, perhaps through satellites, so that law enforcement agencies in various parts of the country can search one another's fingerprint banks. Then will come international linkups between nations to track down criminals.
The National Bureau of Standards currently is working with suppliers and users of fingerprint computers to develop a translation language that systems built by different manufacturers can use to communicate.
Other manufacturers have set their sights on what they say is a potentially even larger market for fingerprint matching devices that, if produced cheaply enough, could be used in place of locks and cards to control access to everything from banks and defense plants to automated tellers and computerized data.
But they say that, right now, the police market for fingerprint matching systems is the ripest for plucking and will serve to prove the technology to prospective commercial users.
Useless to Investigators
Without computerization, millions of fingerprints of potential suspects are virtually useless to crime investigators. In the city of Los Angeles alone there are 4,000 unsolved homicides for which authorities say they have fingerprints of suspected murderers.