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The Gemalto Cogent AFIS system, as seen here in a company stock photo, vastly improved fingerprinting identification in the town of West Chester, Ohio. (Credit: Gemalto)

West Chester Township sits in the southwestern nook of Ohio, about halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton. It’s the biggest township in the Buckeye State, at 36 square miles—but its 61,000 residents are spread out along that wide space.

At the turn of the millennium, the local police department (83 sworn officers) had a problem. They had an influx of a lot of people with too many names.

The aliases became a serious impediment to policing, whether it was undocumented immigrants, or wily criminals, or people who wanted to just not be known, for whatever reason. Lt. Dave Tivin recalls the WCPD in-house warrant unit would issue 100 warrants—but those would target only 40 individuals.

What’s more, even when they would get good fingerprints, officers would have to drive about two hours north to the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation to request a state AFIS search, Tivin recalls. The entire process slowed to a near-halt.

In 2004, that all changed with the institution of a local AFIS fingerprinting system and database, according to the lieutenant. They instituted a Cogent AFIS system, made by the Dutch-headquartered Gemalto digital security company. 

Ripple effects of having a tool like this have improved the entire identification system—and largely cleared up the identification problems in West Chester, said Tivin.

The improvements are a case study in how maintaining a local AFIS, in the right situation and in the right place, can improve policing across an entire region.

“It impacts way more than just the people who do latent identifications—all the way down to the responding officers, to people that are collecting the prints in the jail, to the crime scene guys, as well,” Tivin said.

RIPPLE EFFECTS

The West Chester PD initially instituted a Livescan and Quick ID module apiece in the local jail. They also included one forensic workstation, a server to house the local database (with the ability to connect with the Ohio state AFIS), and mobile ID units that officers could take out on the road with them.

The fingerprinting accuracy has improved, according to authorities.

They are able to take “flats”—instead of rolling the fingers across a sample, as is the usual case in print collection. The “flats” can prove a better match to what criminals leave behind at a crime scene, because criminals are generally not going to roll their fingers across a surface while committing an offense.

The local officers have ownership in the system—and can control the quality of prints from start to finish, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of “junk in, junk out,” according to Tivin.

The extra detail in collection has also allowed supervisors like Tivin to determine which officers are having problems with fingerprinting techniques, and how best to target training, he said in a recent interview with Forensic Magazine.

The West Chester regional database now has over 85,000 sets of prints. It’s a massive trove of data, with some 14 images per individual: 10 fingers, plus flats of both thumbs, plus palms.

But having it local has made all the difference in identifying repeat and usual suspects who keep appearing locally.

“When you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, you want to try to look in the smallest pile first—you have a better chance of being more thorough,” said the lieutenant. 

LATENTS AGAINST LATENTS

A key upside is being able to compare latents from crime scenes against latents—as shown in a recent string of burglaries.

A rash of apartment break-ins and thefts about two years ago showed a similar pattern. The perpetrator would leave upside-down palm prints on glass sliding doors. Apparently, the thief would put their back to the door, with palms on the glass, and then pop the slider up off the track, gaining access inside. The technique had worked eight times.

The palm prints, which the West Chester examiners regularly take, did not produce any hits in the local or state database. But after the fourth burglary, latent-to-latent hits matched all the crimes together, according to Tivin.

The eighth crime developed a lead: a juvenile offender. Most minors are not allowed to be fingerprinted in Ohio, owing to state law.

But when police proved their case to get a court order to print the juvenile, they had their immediate answers: all eight burglaries, and an auto theft, all matched against the boy’s biometrics.

“It sounded like a pinball machine with all the beeps we were getting, all the hits,” said Tivin.

ID SITUATION SOLVED

The West Chester PD upgraded their system in 2016 to improve the operating system, including the algorithm matching improvements seen over the prior decade. From planning to implementation, it took eight months involving Gemalto’s help.

“The regional or local database by no means takes the place of a larger state database, or a database that reaches out between counties or in regional areas,” said Rivin, who presented about the West Chester Regional AFIS experience at last month’s International Association for Identification (IAI) annual conference. “But it totally works in cooperation with them. There have been times that we have needed them—and there are times that they have directly needed us, as well. It’s a real good, symbiotic relationship we have with our systems.”

The Gemalto system is one of roughly 35 systems in use in North America, according to Amy McKeown, the company’s North America marketing manager and subject matter expert for biometrics and identity technology. (Gemalto is a massive player in multiple industries; its revenue in 2016 was reportedly more than €3 billion, according to online sources.)

Tivin explained that West Chester basically solved its alias problem, after several years of local AFIS usage. One of the key breakthroughs was the use of the mobile ID units, which officers would bring out to use for in-the-field printing.

“When word got out that we had this, the officers would call out for the mobile AFIS—and people would voluntarily give up their real identity upon seeing the mobile reader,” Tivin said.

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