Latent print examiners put the finger on crooks

The Winston-Salem Police Department will soon have two more sets of eyes when it comes to analyzing crime scene evidence.

The budget for the upcoming fiscal year adds two latent print examiner positions to the force, to go with the two they already have. They are responsible for importing fingerprints into a database that searches for matches. The number of hits has been increasing steadily, rising from 382 in 2011 to 1600 in 2013 according to a report from the city. In that time, more than 25,000 prints were developed.

The addition of the examiners is expected to cost $117,600, according to the report. Other changes to the public safety budget include adding an information systems analyst and making capital investments such as the purchase of 50 radars, 93 laptops, 93 desktops and body cameras for 95 officers.

City Manager Lee Garrity said the rise in the number of prints developed highlights one of the police department’s biggest needs.

“The Police Department has determined that latent print examiners have provided the greatest benefit in the investigation of burglaries and homicides,” he wrote in a report to the council last month.

Forensic Services director Karen Watson said she realized last year that the department would need more people in order to make the most out of the evidence gathered.

“I could just see how utilizing another staff member to assist with that office, to see how much more efficient could we be,” Watson said. “Once we were able to see that we could improve our efficiency I made the request for this upcoming fiscal year.”

The department’s two examiners verify with each other when they get a match, but Watson said she recognizes that adding two others will allow this to happen much quicker.

“Due to the number of scenes that we go to, and the methods that we try to enhance or retrieve a latent print are so much more than they were 20 years ago when I entered in forensics, we’re able to develop more prints each and every day at the crime scene,” Watson said. “So that just increases the volume of work for your two examiners.”

Print samples are collected by technicians who go to the scene and lift the ridge detail using tape, black powder and other chemicals. They then put the tape with the ridge marks on a white card and store it in a vault until the following day, when the latent print examiners import the prints into the database. Prints are prioritized based on the severity of the crime committed.

Watson said latent print examiners are necessary for determining which prints are of value before choosing which ones to put into the database.

“Because there is so much emphasis on specialization when it comes to court, each technician that responds to a crime scene cannot be specialized to examine and evaluate a latent print to determine if it’s a good quality or not.”

Watson said the changes in modern technology have contributed to the rise in prints developed.

“You’re producing more prints not because crime is necessarily up, but because we have more techniques to develop and enhance the print,” she said, adding that there is now a regional and state database.

Watson said overall this has allowed police to clear cases at a much faster rate. Their ultimate goal is to get criminals off the street faster in order to prevent them from reoffending.

“By looking at this print today instead of two or three days down the road, we can possibly make an identification,” she said.

The ease of identifying a print depends on factors such as whether it is a fingerprint or palm print, the quality of the lift card and the number of points of identification. During the warmer months prints tend to be of higher quality due to the traces of perspiration left with the prints. Prints are also often left by lotion and moisturizers which were on the skin. In the winter prints are not as sharp because the criminals either have dry skin or are wearing gloves.

Examiner Masayo Ballard said that up until four months ago she and her work colleague handled 100 cases each. She has been with the department for seven years but has only examined prints since 2011.

“When I was assigned to the office, we had two and a half years of backlog,” she said. She initially worked alone, but in July 2012 another examiner was added, and then an assistant joined them the following year and helped them log prints in the database.

Watson said the positions will be advertised on the department’s website with the beginning of the new fiscal year July 1, but it will likely be several months before they hire someone. The hiring process will include an initial screening followed by interviews and testing, along with an extensive background check.

“This is a field where anyone off the street is not going to be a qualified candidate. You have to have special skills and training to fit these positions,” she said.

Watson has been with the department for 28 years and said that while having latent print examiners is a significant asset in solving crime, it will never replace human investigation.

“It still goes back to the detectives shaking the trees and looking and finding what the answers are,” she said. “But the database and the latent prints serve as a tool either to include this person as a suspect or to exclude them, that they’re not involved in it.”

She said she will be very excited when the positions are eventually filled because it will make everyone’s job easier.

“With the amount of technology we’re able to produce more and you’ve got to have more people to handle the volume, and to do it, to be efficient, to where we’re actually working to prevent crime and not just solving crime, I think it’s a very positive thing.” !