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Gainesville police build database with new fingerprint system
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The AFIX Automated Fingerprint Identification System allows the Gainesville Police Department to take latent prints from crime scenes, left, and compare them against an electronic database of known prints. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The age-old forensic craft of fingerprint identification just got a 21st century upgrade in Gainesville.

The Gainesville Police Department in recent weeks became the first local law enforcement agency to go online with AFIX, a computerized automated fingerprint identification system.

Police say the system takes a lot of time and labor out of the exacting work of finding matches to fingerprints and palm prints lifted from crime scenes, known as "latent prints."

Gainesville’s AFIX computer system was bought with $25,000 from a U.S. Department of Justice grant. It runs electronic comparisons of latent prints with local databases of "known prints" taken from people who have previously been arrested.

Officials hope to soon build up a large enough database of known prints in the system that they’re solving some burglaries, entering autos and other crimes within minutes instead of days.

Before computerized fingerprint-matching, there were two ways of trying to match up a print: a investigator had to have a suspect in mind, or start pulling known print cards from boxes of hundreds and hope to somehow luck out.

"It is tedious work," said Sgt. Shawn Welsh. "You’re lining up the print, adjusting the magnifying glass, making sure the light is right."

In the past decade, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has offered its automated fingerprint identification system for use by local jurisdictions, but the backlog is tremendous, police say.

When the Gainesville Police Department got its own system, officials asked the GBI to return some of the latent prints they had submitted to the state crime lab.

"Some of the prints that were sent back to us had been sitting at the crime lab since the beginning of 2008," said Gainesville Police Investigator Dan Schrader, the department’s resident fingerprint expert and primary operator of the AFIX system.

So far Gainesville’s AFIX database is modest, with 262 known prints and fewer than 100 latent prints scanned into the system in the first few weeks. But soon the department will be able to access prints taken electronically at the Hall County jail, which uses an inkless "live scan" system to take fingerprints of arrestees.

As the months go by and more people are booked into the jail, the database "could build up pretty rapidly," Schrader said.

Networking with other jurisdictions in Georgia to access their AFIX databases is another key to the system. Forsyth County’s AFIX has several thousand known prints to use for electronic comparison, and DeKalb County has tens of thousands.

Most latent print comparisons on the system take less than a minute to run.

"This gives us a new asset that will allow us to work more with other agencies," Welsh said.

Said Schrader, "Hopefully we’ll be able to help each other out."

The computer system may make the work of matching prints quicker, but it doesn’t completely remove the human element. Fingerprint examiners like Schrader still must analyze each match and get independent verification from a second examiner.

As Gainesville’s print database grows and Hall County and other jurisdictions come online with AFIX in the coming months, police expect to see dramatic results.

"I don’t think it’s going to take very much time before we start getting hits on it," Schrader said. "I think it’s going to be a powerful tool."

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