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Crime and Fingerprints

October 18, 1985

A single thumbprint, found in a burned-out car, led authorities to the four suspects who are now accused of kidnaping and killing two Los Angeles college students. That thumbprint, the result of an adjustment made to a rear-view mirror, would have led nowhere without the help of sophisticated, expensive technology.

The new computerized fingerprint-matching system at the California Department of Justice is not yet fully operational but it quickly matched the thumbprint with one of 300,000 on file. The same system, the Cal-ID, took minutes to identify a suspect in connection with the Night Stalker cases--the first time it was ever used.

In Orange County, the sheriff's department already uses a fingerprint identification computer system under a lease arrangement. Now other police forces, including the Los Angeles Police Department, are clamoring for systems of their own although when the last Los Angeles city budget was written, the fingerprint computer had a low priority, seventh on the LAPD's list behind competing needs such as more police officers and new squad cars.

Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates is joining Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Hal Bernson in urging the city to buy a system programmed for Los Angeles at a cost of $6 million. Two committees of the Los Angeles City Council are scheduled to meet jointly Friday to consider how best to finance the purchase. That is a solid start despite fears that the city will face budget cuts next year.

Mayor Tom Bradley, a former policeman who also favors the fingerprint identification computer, cautions that the city may not be able to afford its own system at this time and notes that for the price of the fingerprint system, Los Angeles could hire 150 more police officers. Bradley wants the LAPD and the county Sheriff's Department to share a regional system for which the state would put up 70% of the money under a bill sponsored by Sen. John F. Foran (D-San Francisco) and recently signed by Gov. George Deukmejian.

The state envisions regional systems, all linked with the Cal-ID system in Sacramento. Each regional system, however, would serve competing needs of all jurisdictions in the area. In Orange County, a special committee is trying to decide whether to join the state network, the benefits of which seem clear to us. But the time allotted to Los Angeles would meet only about one-fifth of its potential requirements. A system of its own tied into both the state and regional system would allow the LAPD greater and faster access.

The computer takes minutes to do a task that takes days by mail and hours by hand and often yields nothing. Is it worth it? In San Francisco, where a system was installed last year after a ballot initiative, 75% of the suspects, who were confronted with evidence of their fingerprints at a crime scene, have pleaded guilty to charges. On that record, along, the LAPD should have its own system and the sooner the better.

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