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Night Stalker Case Demonstrates Effectiveness of Systems : Market Developing for Fingerprint Computers

September 12, 1985|LESLIE BERKMAN | Times Staff Writer

Part of the problem is that law enforcement agencies usually catalogue huge volumes of fingerprints by a manual system that requires clear identification of all 10 fingers for matches. That's fine for booking arrestees, whose full fingerprints are rolled in ink. But in burglaries and other crimes where there are no witnesses, usually only a few scattered and often distorted prints are left behind. Because of the huge volume of fingerprints on file, it is usually unfeasible to search them for a match with individual crime-scene prints unless police have a particular suspect in mind.

The Los Angeles Police Department says it could take up to 67 years for one of its officers to match a print of a single finger by manually searching the 1.7 million fingerprint cards in its criminal files.

Peggy James, criminal fingerprint examiner who helped to acquire an automated system for the Houston Police Department in 1979, said that, previously, the department collected fingerprints at crime scenes mostly for public relations.

Find Culprits Fast

"Officers would go to a crime scene and throw powder around and make the complainant think they were doing something," she said. "But then the prints would be filed away never to be touched again unless a suspect was developed."

By contrast, fingerprint computers have tracked down culprits almost instantaneously. Since the introduction of the system, Houston authorities have identified 540 criminal suspects, including five convicted murderers.

When San Francisco activated a computerized fingerprint matching system in 1984, within seven minutes it identified a man who fatally shot a 46-year-old woman during a 1978 burglary attempt. The man confessed to the crime after he was confronted with a copy of fingerprints lifted from a second-story windowsill of the woman's home that matched his own. In police investigations, confessions to crimes prior to a court trial are "very unusual," said Ken Moses, project director of San Francisco's computer program. But when the city computer finds a fingerprint match, he said, "more than 75% of the time the person pleads guilty before trial. It is like the district attorney holding four aces."

In the 15 months since San Francisco installed its automated fingerprint matching system, it has been credited with identifying 1,234 suspects and solving 992 cases, including burglaries, robberies, rapes, homicides and auto thefts.

Los Angeles police officers, who also are lobbying for a fingerprint computer, say that, if they had acquired one by June, 1984, when police first lifted a fingerprint at the scene of a murder linked to the Night Stalker, it is probable that the suspect, Richard Ramirez, would have been arrested much earlier and possibly other lives would have been saved.

Bill Rathburn of the LAPD's support services bureau called fingerprint automation "one of the most significant steps forward in law enforcement perhaps since the two-way radio."

Computer Bank

The state's new Cal-ID system will give it the capability to match single crime-scene prints against a computer bank of 1.5 million known felons. Also, according to the state's master plan, there will be a county-by-county network of computer systems with varying capabilities linked into the central state computer. The satellite systems represent about $21.5 million of potential contracts.

Counties are expected to start negotiating contracts as soon as the state Legislature acts on a bill to provide 70% state funding for the local fingerprint systems.

"Vendors will be entering the California market and competing tooth-and-nail," said Tim Ruggles, a U.S. representative of Morpho Systems S.A., an Avon, France-based subsidiary of Caisse des Depots, a French financial institution with $140 billion in assets.

Only two months ago, Ruggles said, Morpho decided to aggressively market its automated fingerprint system in the United States. Morpho, which recently developed a fingerprint computer for the French National Police, plans to install a demonstration model in Carlsbad, Calif., in December, he said.

Printrak's Snyder said that, so far, few other companies have ventured into the field because of "the big entry fee." He said that, over the years, between $20 million and $30 million has been invested in building the company's system, based on technology that its London-based parent, Thomas De La Rue Group of Cos., bought from Rockwell International in 1981.

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