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Monday, October 14, 2002

BREAKING NEWz you can UzE...
compiled by Jon Stimac

Bullets, Locations Hold Clues to Shootings  - THE WASHINGTON POST - Oct. 8, 2002 ...investigators are using the latest forensic science tools in effort to solve series of crimes...

Pawn Shops May Require Fingerprints For Sellers - KOLO News, Reno, NV - Oct. 9, 2002 ...The issue of fingerprinting customers at pawn shops and secondhand dealer stores first came up in 1997, but was defeated....

Bond Is Denied to Suspect In Nanjemoy Rape, Robbery- THE WASHINGTON POST - Oct. 10, 2002 ...four fingerprints found in home matched the prints with those of suspect who had been incarcerated...

Own Slip-ups Often Trip Up Killers- THE SEATTLE TIMES  - Oct. 12, 2002 ...sometimes, the criminals own errors trip themselves up...

Crime Frozen In Time
 - THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH - Oct.13, 2002 ...From the ropes prisoners used to hang themselves to what may be one of the oldest fingerprint cards in America, the St. Louis Police Library houses the history of crime-fighting in the city....

Good morning via the "Detail," a weekly e-mail newsletter that greets latent print examiners around the globe every Monday morning. The purpose of the Detail is to help keep you informed of the current state of affairs in the latent print community, to provide an avenue to circulate original fingerprint-related articles, and to announce important events as they happen in our field.

Last week, we looked at a neat case from Tracy Saur, Latent Print Examiner from the Grand Rapids, MICHIGAN Police Department, Latent Print Unit.  This week, we introduce and explore some terminology and the concepts behind latent print examination and science.

It is becoming increasingly important for latent print examiners to feel comfortable articulating the correlation between the examination process and the scientific method.  It is also important that we have a firm grasp on how we view ourselves.  In the first Daubert Concept (The Detail 54 and the Daubert Card) we explore fingerprint examination as a science and practitioners as scientists.  However, I would argue that it might be possible for one latent print examiner to consider him / her self as more of a pure scientist than another, who might perform more technical duties.

In reality, we are all different.  We have different educations, perform different tasks for our agencies, and we are viewed differently by our administrations and even our peers.  Where do you consider yourself on the scale from "pure" scientist to laboratory technician?  A latent print examiner with a PhD in science who conducts fingerprint-related research and teaches forensic science courses on a collegiate level might be more in touch with "pure" science from an academic viewpoint.  On the other hand, a latent print examiner who has been through an "on-the-job" hands-on training experience with a qualified senior examiner and mostly process items of evidence, only occasionally having the opportunity to conduct latent print comparisons, might consider themselves more a technician than a scientist.  In reality, every time a side-by-side examination is conducted, science is practiced, and the practitioner applying the science is an applied scientist.  This fact remains independent of education, background, or job title.  So where does the word "art" belong in a description of latent print examination?

After discussions of the Daubert Card commentary (See the Detail 54 or the Articles page) regarding latent print examination and science, Craig Coppock e-mailed the following contribution representing the viewpoints of several examiners in Spokane on this subject:


Are you a scientist?

The problem with latent print examiners answering this question with a resounding and authoritative YES, is that many examiners do not have a degree in some aspect of science.  However, by a simple analysis of the definitions of science, and of art, we begin to understand that a combination of applied science and art is the best description for fingerprint identification.  But, does that make you anything less than a scientist?

We all know that the categorical divisions of science, known as scientific fields, is for the most part a human need for simplification.  Obviously, it is not practical nor is it possible for an individual to study all aspects of science.  We also understand that scientific fields overlap.  Is the field of mathematics used in any other area?  Does geology and paleontology have anything in common?  Yes.  The fields that relate to fingerprint identification include biology, with the specific areas of anatomy, genetics, embryology, and of course statistical modeling (Mathematics).  Thus, the real question is what is science as it relates to the fingerprint examiner? 

The scientific method withstanding, the concept of science itself can also be divided into areas or fields.  These include:

A.     Theory

B.     Research

C.     Practical application

Art has many sub-definitions.  For the fingerprint examiner the applicable definition of art references “specific skill and its application”(Webster’s 1).  Hence, the fingerprint examiner is a “practitioner of fingerprint science, with specific applied skill.” 

This blending of science and art is very common.  A computer scientist uses the art of trouble shooting to make their application work.  Photography is based in physics, and chemistry, yet the photographer uses this scientific knowledge with specific applied skill.  This gives us the dual nomenclature the “art of photography” and its companion “photographic science.”  Art, in this respect, is simply the human aspect of the applied sciences.  Yes, you are a scientist.  You are “learned” in the science of fingerprint identification (Webster’s 2).  You don’t have to know everything about science.  In fact, nobody does.  According to a familiar ignorance principle: The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

Craig A. Coppock
Spokane County-City Forensic Unit


            Spokane County-City Forensic Specialists

            The Weekly Detail, July-August, 2002

            Webster’s (1) New World Dictionary:  1983

            Webster’s (2) Seventh Collegiate Dictionary 1971


In order for a particular latent print examination to have occurred and for an individualization to have been effected, the practitioner, regardless of their skill or ability, must have understood the fundamentals of fingerprint examination; that friction ridge skin is unique and permanent.  Further, a philosophy and methodology was followed in order for that opinion to be reached.  If a correct philosophy and methodology are not understood and followed, then the accuracy of that examination may not have been ideal. 

We understand that throughout the years, there have been different philosophies and methodologies for latent print examination.  A philosophy which surfaced relatively early in the field of fingerprints involved minimum point thresholds.  For example, an examiner may have required 8 "points" in the same relative position in order for an identification to have been reported.  The newer philosophy of Ridgeology accounts for all three levels of detail upon which examiners have always relied.  It states that 1) ridge formations (any of the three levels of detail, not just "points") 2) in sequence (higher standard than "relative position") 3) having sufficient uniqueness 4) to individualize (or exclude every other source) are required in order for an opinion of  individualization to be formed. 

Other methodologies have taken into account the presence or absence of a particular level two detail within a grid location.  However, the ACE-V methodology with a side-by-side comparison allows for the examiner to take into account other ridge features as well as higher degrees of distortion during more difficult examinations.  Further, ACE-V follows exactly with the scientific method.  We saw in The Detail 54 that Analysis corresponds with Observation, Comparison corresponds with Experimentation, and Evaluation corresponds with testing the tentative conclusion to form a final conclusion.  Verification is repeating the process, and of course the results are reported, a final step in the scientific method.

It is possible for a four-year old to look at two impressions, say yes or no, and be correct, but obviously their average accuracy level will be far from ideal.  Even if they only gave results they were sure about, over-all accuracy would be high when false negatives were factored in.  The point is, without a thorough understanding of identification philosophy, methodology, and the fundamental principles, the accuracy rate of a latent print examiner may not be ideal.  A competent latent print examiner correctly following the ACE-V methodology will not make mistakes in latent print examinations.  However, we also realize that articulation of the philosophy and methodology used by that examiner is another issue entirely.  That same competent latent print examiner should be able to articulate the fundamentals of the fingerprint science, but if they can not, it doesn't necessarily follow that their conclusions are inaccurate.

We know that a competent examiner operates under the ACE-V methodology and adheres to the most accurate philosophy available.  SWGFAST recently defined the philosophy (or standard) of identification, and also explored elements of methodology.  As soon as those drafts are released for comment, they will be made available through the Detail.  But for now, we know that when conducting latent print examinations, we are applied scientists, as we apply the scientific method through ACE-V to a set of impressions.  We also acknowledge that there are elements of art in what we do, but we have to be careful about how far we take this idea.  We become dangerously close to approaching the position of the administration of the SCRO who hold that fingerprint examination is an art form, and therefore differing opinions are acceptable; nobody can be wrong.  The flaw is easily recognized as Dave Grieve recently pointed out on a CLPEX message board post, if not possible for anyone to be wrong, neither can it be possible for anyone to be right.

Perhaps the wise perspective would be weighted toward science and not art.  What do you think? 

The informal CLPEX.com message board is available for banter about this week's Detail:
And the onin.com forum (http://onin.com/fp/wwwbd/) is also available for more formal latent print-related discussions.

Next week, we will play it by ear.  I have a couple of articles available, or we may look more in depth at discussion stemming from this week's article on science.  If you have a viewpoint for next week's Detail, send it in!  I'm just an e-mail away at: kaseywertheim@aol.com.


UPDATES on CLPEX.com this week...

No major updates on the site this week.  But the Ridgeology Science Workshop in Arlington, Texas went very well!  Details and course comments will be made available on the RSW page of CLPEX.com next week.

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Until next Monday morning, don't work too hard or too little.

Have a GREAT week!