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NEW SYSTEM OF FINGERPRINTING POINTS TO FAST IDENTIFICATIONS CENTRAL POLICE SERVICES TO OVERSEE OPERATION OF COMPUTERIZED PROCEDURE IN 6-COUNTY AREA

A fingerprinting revolution. The most significant breakthrough since the two-way radio. A powerful weapon against criminals.

When police officers start talking like this, it means the balance between criminals and their pursuers is about to shift. And when the officers from Central Police Services start thinking about their new fingerprinting system, they get excited.

"We won't want to go home at night because we're going to catch so many bad guys," Central Police Services Commissioner John N. Cardarelli said with a straight face. "We're not going to have enough room in jail. We can't wait to get this."

The jail part may be an exaggeration, but a new fingerprint-identification system for local police is expected to result in a big advantage for police in fighting crimes ranging from burglaries to murder. It also will change the way police investigate. Here is the difference:

Police officers now search the crime scene for a good fingerprint. If they find one -- and that's much rarer than most think -- it's worthless until they come up with a suspect.

Once police have a suspect, they must match the two sets of fingerprints by finding identifying characteristics in both.

"Under the old way, if you have a suspect and a good set of prints, you might be able to make an arrest," said Peter A. Arena, who will manage the new system for Central Police Services.

The new computerized fingerprint system is called Statewide Automated Fingerprint Identification System. When police find a fingerprint, the information will be fed into a statewide computer that has 4.5 million candidates, each corresponding to a criminal. This number increases every day.

Even if police could narrow the search, the number of possible suspects is too staggering to handle without the computer.

For example, if the criminal were thought to be a male between the ages of 16 to 26, and there is a print of the right index finger with a distinguishing feature, that information would turn up 63,000 suspects. One investigator would need two years to search these 63,000.

Instead, the computer searches the cards, pulls out those with similar characteristics and ranks them according to similarity.

The computer compares the prints to those of possible suspects on a large video screen, which can enlarge or maneuver sections for easier identification. Police looking for matches now use a magnifying glass, Arena said.

Results from other cities using the computer system are impressive.

The Tacoma, Wash., Police Department and sheriff's deputies from surrounding Pierce County share a system similar to the one planned for Western New York. Burglaries, the city's most common crime, have dropped 20 percent since the system began about a year ago, according to Douglas Walker, who manages the Tacoma Police Department office that operates the system.

"We have been extremely accurate," Walker said. "We're getting a hit (matching prints with suspects) in one of every six cases we process, which is quite good."

The computer's successes have been big and small, according to Walker. A man robbing a Tacoma bank last October slipped a note to the teller and handled a stack of bank brochures. Police were able to lift prints off both and entered them into the computer, comparing them with thousands of criminals. Police had their suspect in less than 48 hours.

Quick identification of routine burglary suspects is a big reason why burglaries are down, according to Walker. Criminals often go on sprees, committing hundreds of burglaries.

"By identifying people quicker than we have in the past, they don't have that opportunity," Walker said. "It's not uncommon for us to make an identification an hour after processing."

Built by North American MORPHO Systems in Tacoma, the system also turns previously useless information into vital evidence. Police often find prints for only a part of one finger. The computer takes the distinguishing feature on the partial print and searches for that feature throughout the prints on record. This 360-degree search, as it is called, was impossible under the old system.

A police officer still must make the final identification. But the computer has done what any normal-size staff could never do, Arena said.

"We're not going to say every time we put in a print we'll get a suspect," Arena said. "But the percentage is going to be much more in our favor."

Scheduled to be working at its peak by late fall, the system will put new emphasis on finding fingerprints, according to Arena and Cardarelli.

The system will be available for police agencies statewide thanks to a $43 million grant administered by the state's Department of Criminal Justice Services. Much of the money comes from a recent surcharge on criminal fines, Arena said.

Any police officer in the six counties of the department's Western Region will be able to use the system. The computer terminals will be in the Central Police Services headquarters at 95 Franklin St.

Crimes will have priorities. The more serious ones will take precedence over the less violent ones, Arena said. Running through the millions of files for a burglary might take a day or two. A homicide check would take two or three hours.

"There aren't many arrests made using fingerprints now," Arena said. "There will be with this. We're just waiting for the equipment to arrive. We're ready."

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