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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
great havoc in our country, the death investigation system is one that is of increasing importance. Deaths resulting from terrorism, with the exception of any suicide perpetrators, are homicides that require robust medicolegal death investigation systems to recover and identify remains, collect forensic evidence, and determine cause of death.
Incompatible Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, law enforcement agencies across the Nation began adopting Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS) to improve their efficiency and reduce the time needed to identify (or exclude) a given individual from a fingerprint. Before the use of AFIS, the fingerprint identification process involved numerous clerks and fingerprint examiners tediously sifting through thousands of classified and cataloged paper fingerprint cards.
AFIS was an enormous improvement in the way local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies managed fingerprints and identified people. AFIS searches are much faster than manual searches and often allow examiners to search across a larger pool of candidates and produce a shorter list of possible associations of crime scene prints and unidentified persons, living or dead.
Working with a system’s software, fingerprint examiners can map the details of a given fingerprint—by features that consist of “minutiae” (e.g., friction ridge endings and ridge bifurcations)—and ask the system to search its database for other records that closely resemble this pattern. Depending on the size of the database being searched and the system’s workload, an examiner often can get results back within minutes.
However, even though AFIS has been a significant improvement for the law enforcement community over the last few decades, AFIS deployments and performance (operational capacities) today are still far from optimal. Many law enforcement AFIS installations are stand-alone systems or are part of relatively limited regional networks with shared databases or information-sharing agreements. Today, systems from different vendors often are incompatible and hence cannot communicate. Indeed, different versions of similar systems from the same vendor often cannot effectively share fingerprint data with one another. In addition, many law enforcement agencies also access the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System database (the “largest biometric database in the world”50) through an entirely separate stand-alone system—a fact that often forces fingerprint examiners to enter fingerprint data for one search multiple times in multiple states (at least once for each system being searched). Additionally, searches