Human Factors Report (2012)

Effects of Human Factors on the Accuracy of Fingerprint Analysis

In recent years, the accuracy of latent print identification has been the subject of increased scrutiny, including from the National Academy of Sciences in their 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (pdf, 350 pages). To help address this issue, the National Institute of Justice and the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) convened an expert working group to do a scientific assessment of the effects of human factors on forensic latent print analysis and to develop recommendations to reduce the risk of error.

The working group addressed issues ranging from the acquisition of impressions of friction ridge skin to courtroom testimony, and from laboratory design and equipment to emerging methods for associating latent prints with exemplars. In addition to a comprehensive discussion of how human factors relate to all aspects of latent print examinations — including communicating conclusions through reports and testimony — the report offers specific recommendations to improve the understanding and management of human-factors issues in fingerprint analysis.

Creating a Culture of Openness Among Examiners

The working group made a number of important recommendations that touch on everything from the time latent prints are submitted for examination to testimony in the courtroom. Among the recommendations is the need “to create a culture in which both management and staff understand that openness about errors is not necessarily a path to punitive sanctions but rather is part of an effective system to detect deviations from desired practices and incorrect judgments in latent print casework.”

To help achieve such a culture, the panel recommended that management in forensic crime laboratories:

  1. Employ a system to identify and track errors and their causes.
  2. Establish policies and procedures for case review and conflict resolution, corrective action, and preventive measures.