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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
with fingerprint records in an agency database, such as the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) or a state’s criminal fingerprint database; and
Latent print searches, which are considerably more complicated than 10-print searches. In a latent print search, a fingerprint examiner attempts to identify an individual by comparing a full or partial latent fingerprint from a crime scene with the records contained in an AFIS database. Latent prints are regularly of poor quality and may be only a partial print, and often fingerprint examiners may not even know from which finger a given latent print came.
A third category (albeit one that includes elements of both categories listed above) might also be called “unidentified burned, decomposed, or fragmented prints,” which may be either a complete 10-print card to be compared with known prints on file to confirm identity or partial prints recovered from the skin or dermis of damaged fingers of an unknown decedent to determine identity. This third category can include prints from single individuals recovered from a small single event or victims of a mass casualty event resulting from naturally occurring catastrophes or terrorism. In either case, AFIS systems have reduced the time required to accomplish many identifications from weeks to hours.
Today, the process of populating AFIS systems with records is managed primarily by uploading 10-print records from police bookings and background checks. Because images from these sources are generally of good quality (indeed, poor-quality 10-print records are normally redone at the time they are taken), an automated algorithm is adequate for extracting the features used to index an image for retrieval. Computer algorithms work well for performing comparisons of 10-print records (e.g., to see if the prints taken when one applies for a security clearance match the prints taken during a previous background check). However, submitting a latent print for comparison is a more customized process, requiring fingerprint examiners to mark or adjust the features manually to retrieve stored prints with the same features in analogous places. Because latent print images normally are not as clear or as complete as images from a 10-print card, the image processing algorithms used for 10-prints are not as good as the human eye in spotting features in poor images.
AFIS has been a significant improvement for the law enforcement community over the past decades, but AFIS deployments today are still far from optimal. Many law enforcement AFIS implementations are stand-alone systems or are part of relatively limited regional networks with shared databases or information-sharing agreements—the Western Identification