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G o o d   M o r n i n g !
Monday, October 4, 2004

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.

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

Cops: Bank Robber Caught PAWTUCKET TIMES, RI  - Oct. 2, 2004 ...the robber took care to keep his fingerprints from the counter of the credit union, but he ran out of luck once he stepped outside...

ID System That Scans Palm OK'd By Police Agency   ARIZONA REPUBLIC, AZ  - Sept. 30, 2004 to purchase a $50,000 automated fingerprint identification system that can digitally read palm prints and integrate with their records management system...

Man Charged With Step-Daughter's Murder   WLOX-TV, MS - Sept. 28, 2004 ...police received test results from the state crime lab linking suspect to a bloody palm print found at the murder site...

Company Wins Fingerprint ID Contract WASHINGTON TECHNOLOGY ONLINE, DC - Sept. 23, 2004 ...DigitalNet will provide fingerprint identification services to the Homeland Security Department under a new $25 million contract...

Last week
we further explored the concept of latent print sufficiency as a three-tiered structure by publication (with permission, of course) of a couple of follow-up issues.  It occurred to me last week, as I was preparing for a presentation at the Southern California Association of Fingerprint Officers (SCAFO) conference, that there is another tier to sufficiency; AFIS value.  Not all "identifiable" prints are suitable for AFIS entry.  I will be writing up a final draft of this entire concept into a paper I will make available for publication by state or regional IAI division newsletters.  What better way promote an understanding of latent print sufficiency issues than to distribute the information to those investigators and crime scene personnel who often collect our evidence.  I will let you know when that is available

This week

we explore what role doubt and caution should play in latent print examination.
Caution, Doubt, and Inconclusion
Potential ramifications of recent high-profile errors

At the SCAFO meeting in Covina California on Saturday, I had the pleasure of presenting and participating in a panel discussion on errors, ethics, and integrity.  Several points came up in discussion that I felt would fit in nicely to the last two details on the concept of sufficiency.

One of the themes that was consistent throughout the comments of each panel member (names available on was doing the right thing when you know that is what needs to be done.  This concept related to latent print examination is simple: if you know it, report it; if you don't, don't report that you do.  But recently, examiners may be questioning what they know, how to best use their experience, and how to articulate the knowledge and experience they have always had. 

Although this isn't necessarily a bad thing (we should all constantly strive to know more about our discipline and present that knowledge in a transparent way), there may be a tendency by some examiners to doubt conclusions that simply should not be doubted.  Likewise, recent events have introduced a healthy dose of caution in some examiners.  Most likely, we all fall within a range covering the gamut of response from over-reaction to complete disregard of recent errors.  Regardless of where you fall in this range, nothing except benefit can result from considering the ramifications of such incidents to the work you do on a daily basis.

For a latent print examiner, knowledge of the uniqueness of friction ridge skin is sometimes taken for granted.  We know how incredibly unique even small areas of an impression can be.  And we have seen so much of this uniqueness time and time again that when we recognize a sufficient quality and quantity of that uniqueness in two impressions, we simply know an impression matches.  But the issue of sufficiency is decided based on the knowledge, training, experience, and other factors of ability of the examiner who is conducting that examination.

The fact is, above a certain quality and quantity, nobody questions the uniqueness of fingerprints.  Even most critics agree that 10 fingerprints or a fully-rolled fingerprint is unique.  Latent print examiners have detailed knowledge that small areas are unique, and for over a century that knowledge has been accurately applied in our discipline.  However, the public, critics, juries, even attorneys don't fully understand how much uniqueness exists in small areas of FRS impressions, and therefore are not in a position to judge whether a correct decision is made with absolute confidence.  You are the person with that knowledge.

But another fact exists... that human experiences are a part of our expertise.  The knowledge we learn from textbooks, discussions with other examiners, and experience from looking at impressions all affect our level of expertise and therefore our ability as examiners.  In fact, even the circumstance and experience of other examiners should be used to better ourselves.  If we don't learn from error, we are certainly worse off than before.

I don't profess to know the reasons behind recent high-profile errors.  But I know that efforts are being made to discover and make public those reasons for the betterment of our discipline.  In the mean time, the question remains should we be more cautious, more skeptical,... doubtful?  These are difficult questions, and the answer most likely depends on you.

The fact is, everything you know becomes a part of who you are.  Knowledge that individuals have made errors based on the appearance of two impressions should spark within us the natural curiosity to see those impressions, compare them (in concept) to impressions we routinely see, and determine or validate that we are operating within the boundaries of conservatism on which our discipline has built the reputation of being the gold standard of forensic science.

Depending on an examiners reaction to the impression that resulted in an error, they may or may not change the way they do their work.  But regardless of the reaction of any specific examiner to any set of impressions, the more important concept to explore is that of experience.  Your experience.  The reason this is the overriding concept is because those impressions, your reaction to the impressions, and what you decide to do as a result of close matches becomes a part of who you are.  It becomes a part of the knowledge you posses.  It becomes your experience.

And for those who have had the opportunity to cross the line and make an erroneous identification, you have probably learned the most from that experience.  You are able to say something that most examiners are not: that you KNOW where the line is... you know how far is too far.  You have been there and done that, and I bet you never wish to experience that feeling again.  You can also evaluate each case you look at under that newfound threshold and use (and articulate) that experience in a healthy and productive way, if you choose to do so.

The discussion at SCAFO was excellent... I wish each one of you were there.  The bottom line is that errors may affect us all in different ways, but they become a part of who we are and we learn from each one.  As we take fingerprint examination into the next century, continue to hold ethics and professionalism in high regard, report what you know, and don't report what you don't know, and fingerprint examination has just as good a chance of  remaining the gold standard of forensic science for another century.


Don't forget about our "Close Calls" page.  If you have examples of prints that are close but are non-matches, scan them at 1000ppi and send to

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On critical attacks to our discipline:

Create enough psychological safety [for people] to speak up.  Reward it, and ingrain it into the culture.  Then we'll make [outside attacks] irrelevant.

-Warren Bennis speaking on courage [comments in brackets inserted by the author]

From "How do Today's CEOs Define Bold Leadership" in Fast Company Magazine,, September, 2004.



Updated the Detail Archives

Updated the Smiley Files

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

Have a GREAT week!