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Computer Could Point Finger at Murderers : Automated Searches Through Fingerprint Files Could Substantially Increase Arrests in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

In Los Angeles, a detective trying to unravel a single fingerprint clue confronts rows of filing cabinets containing 1.7 million fingerprint cards. Manually searching the entire file would take one technician 67 years.

In San Francisco, a detective with a similar problem waits while a technician punches a few keys on a computer console. The solution is flashed on the terminal’s screen. Time elapsed: less than five minutes.

Murder Suspects Identified

The net result is that the San Francisco officers, having installed a $2.6-million Japanese-made computer system in 1984, identified suspects in 40 of 52 unsolved murders and, so far, have persuaded the local district attorney to prosecute in 12 of those cases.

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Overall, in 20% of the cases where San Francisco police recover fingerprint evidence, they identify whose prints were found at the crime scene.

In Los Angeles, where almost every day some killer literally gets away with murder--the city has had an average of 336 unsolved murders annually since 1979--such a system could produce dramatic results.

Los Angeles police, who look enviously at the San Francisco system, say that with such a computer they could be arresting about 60 murder suspects a year who now get away. And hundreds of rapists, bandits and burglars could be identified and arrested, too.

The problem for the Los Angeles Police Department: money and politics.

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$6 Million to Automate

Buying the Los Angeles police such an automated fingerprint identification system would cost about $6 million or about $50,000 per month over its anticipated 10-year life, police say.

(In governmental terms, that price tag is not exceptional. Over a decade, it would be just 1% of the $60-million annual cost of Proposition 1, which would have added as many as 1,000 police officers to the LAPD through a property assessment. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure June 4, as they did a 1981 proposal to raise taxes to hire 1,500 additional officers.)

City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie said an automated fingerprint identification system could be financed out of the present city budget, through lease purchasing, without raising taxes.

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A major issue to be resolved first is whether one system should be bought for all local law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles County or whether to have one for the Los Angeles Police Department and another for everyone else.

Legislation pending in Sacramento would provide for 70% state financing for a network of regional systems, but only for a single system in Los Angeles County. And that regional system would not begin operation until at least 1988.

Immediate Purchase Sought

Some Los Angeles police officials want the city to buy such a system immediately, saying they could have it busy catching killers and other felons in eight months.

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They contend that the Los Angeles Police Department has such a heavy workload that it needs its own system, rather than being part of a single countywide system.

The Los Angeles police collect computer-readable latent fingerprint evidence in more than 20,000 cases annually. This is more than three times the volume of latent fingerprint cases at the state’s next largest policing agency, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which collects latent prints in about 6,000 cases a year.

Capt. James Anderson, chief of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Records and Identification Division, calls automated fingerprint identification systems “a remarkable step into the 21st Century.”

And LAPD Deputy Chief Clyde Cronkhite, commander of the Central Division and a founder of Forum 2000, a police group that looks to long-range law enforcement problems, said: “Automated fingerprint identification systems are the most important tool for policing since the two-way radio was put in police cars.

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“This is a technological advancement that can really help the people on the street and help us protect them. And this is by far the most cost-effective tool police can buy.

“We have literally thousands of fingerprints from crime scenes that we cannot match against the millions of fingerprints we have on file,” Cronkhite added. “Right now they are useless, but with the computer they would not be.”

20% Hike in Case Clearances

At the state level, Tim Ruggles, a former Minnesota state trooper whose consulting firm was retained by California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp’s office to prepare a plan for a statewide network of such fingerprint computers, said: “I can’t think of another expenditure that would get you a 20% to 25% increase in case clearance, which is, overall, about what you can expect from such a system.

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“Given a system at least as capable as the one in San Francisco, you could expect a minimum of 20% of unsolved cases in which there is fingerprint evidence to be solved,” said Ruggles, president of Applied Systems Technology Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif.

In the City of Los Angeles, Ruggles’ figures translate into identification of 4,000 criminals a year who otherwise would walk away.

This also offers the potential to reverse a steady long-term decline in the percentage of reported crimes that the police solve.

There were more unsolved murders in Los Angeles County last year than there were in all of America in 1954.

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Back then, police both here and nationally solved about 90% of known murders, while today fewer than 75% of homicides nationwide are solved and, in many big cities, including Los Angeles, only about 60% of known murders are solved.

One System or More?

“The concept is wonderful and we want it,” said Comrie, the city’s chief administrative officer. “But one thing we do worry about is in one county, of which this city is an irregular piece going in all directions, is having one system for the county the better way to go?

“It is an expensive investment that looks like it will be well worth it,” Comrie added. “But let’s make sure we only have to do it once and that we do it right.”

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Comrie’s desire to get such a system is distinctly different from the one that prevailed in San Francisco, where voters had to force the police to buy such a system.

Both the San Francisco Police Department administration and the city’s Board of Supervisors took no steps to buy such a system, prompting retired Municipal Judge Mary Pajalich and Supervisor Wendy Nelder to get an initiative on the ballot.

Pajalich said she cannot think of a wiser investment of taxpayer money in the criminal justice system. San Francisco voters apparently agreed, balloting 81% in favor of the measure.

The LAPD lists the computer as No. 7 on its list of budget priorities, after such traditional items as more officers and new patrol cars.

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Ruggles, the state consultant, said he is not surprised that police administrators do not attach a higher priority to such systems.

‘Detectives Understand’

“It’s the detectives who understand its value,” Ruggles said, noting that most senior police administrators rise through the ranks with little or no experience as working detectives.

Judge Pajalich said she favors a separate system for large cities, such as Los Angeles, because it encourages use of the system “for all types of crimes. I’ll bet you the state system will be limited to just major felonies because of all the demands for access to the computer.

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“But the fact is people get their car boosted a lot more often than they get murdered and, unless you have enough systems with enough search capacity, then the police will focus on the most serious crimes instead of every crime, felony and misdemeanor where they have latent prints,” Pajalich said.

“If you spend the money on the system, it pays off because lots of people charged with lesser crimes, confronted with fingerprint evidence, are going to plead guilty and save time and money for clerks and judges and prosecutors and public defenders,” she added.

Latent Fingerprints

Latent fingerprints are recovered in about 90% of the roughly 800 murders in the city of Los Angeles each year, police say.

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This suggests that, if the Los Angeles police had such a computer system, they could catch more than five killers a month in the city who now escape detection. In addition, based on San Francisco’s experience, they could potentially seek prosecution of about 360 of the more than 2,016 killers who have escaped detection in Los Angeles during the last six years.

Marvin Engquist, a Los Angeles homicide detective with a reputation for exceptionally well-prepared cases and use of scientific evidence, also said such a machine could enhance the likelihood of getting convictions. “I’d sure rather go before a jury with fingerprint evidence than the testimony of a snitch with an unsavory past,” Engquist said.

Despite the impression often left by movies and network television police shows that fingerprints can solve crimes, latent fingerprints recovered from crime scenes are almost useless to police. Only when the police already have a suspect in mind, whose prints they can pull from a file and compare to those lifted from the crime scene, are latent prints valuable.

No Complete Search by Hand

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The Los Angeles police have not attempted a complete manual search of their fingerprint files in years, according to Joseph Bonino, the civilian who commands the police Records and Identification Section.

In the Hillside Strangler murders, where the police were under enormous pressure to catch the killers, police recovered a fingerprint in 1977 from inside the apartment of Kimberly Diane Martin, the next-to-last local victim.

A determined manual or “cold” search of LAPD fingerprint files did not produce the suspect’s identity, however. Only after Kenneth Bianchi was arrested for murder in Bellingham, Wash., were Los Angeles police able to match the fingerprint from Martin’s apartment to Bianchi.

Los Angeles police had Bianchi’s prints on file because he had once applied to become a Los Angeles police officer.

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Computers designed specifically to compare fingerprints could have found Bianchi’s file in minutes, perhaps preventing the murder of Cindy Lee Hudspeth, the last of the known Hillside Strangler victims.

Cold Searches

Local law enforcement agencies, other than LAPD, can make a few cold searches of their files each year when, in major cases, they have a description of the suspect or other information that allows them to focus on only a segment of their fingerprint files.

An FBI spokesman in Washington said the bureau, which has 22.8 million fingerprint cards in its criminal file and 35 million more cards in its other files, makes manual searches of its files in cases of exceptional importance, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, or when police produce other evidence (such as sex, age or physical description) that makes it possible to search only parts of the fingerprint file. The FBI is now automating its files.

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But in Los Angeles, use of automated fingerprint identification technology may be delayed until 1988, and perhaps later, not only because of financial or technical considerations but also because of thorny issues of law enforcement politics.

The state Department of Justice’s planned statewide CAL-ID program is based on the theory that most criminals operate in the area near their homes and that over time the police have contact with most criminals. Police in large cities report that two of every three people they arrest have a prior local arrest record.

Local Criminals

“About 80% of your B and E’s (burglaries) and auto thefts are done by locals, so you want your own data base so you can quickly search it and then network quickly to your neighbor and search there and if it doesn’t find a match then shoot it to the state system,” said Dick Snyder, president of de La Rue Printrak of Anaheim, a British concern that has been marketing fingerprint comparison systems for more than a decade.

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By building regional fingerprint libraries, law enforcement can focus the initial computer search on the most likely group to produce the suspect and thus hold down costs. When the regional file is searched without success, the plan is to transmit latent fingerprints by telephone line to nearby regional systems for further searches and, if necessary, to the state system in Sacramento.

The state government would pay 70% of the cost of regional automated fingerprint identification systems under legislation by state Sen. John Foran (D-San Francisco). Under Foran’s plan, any county or group of counties with 1.5 million people is eligible for state support.

Under this plan, the Sheriff’s Department would probably manage the Los Angeles County system. Computer terminals enabling people to have access to the system would be scattered at about 10 local law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles police.

Which Agency Gets Terminal?

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A seven-member committee of law enforcement executives would recommend which police agencies would get terminals and which would have to rely on another police department for access, an issue that could involve lengthy negotiations as police chiefs vie for having the terminal in their offices.

Los Angeles has such a disproportionate amount of the reported crime in California that the city is a unique case in need of its own system, which would be designed to focus on identifying suspects, argue Bonino and others.

Los Angeles, like most big cities, has more of the hard-to-solve killings in which the killer and victim are strangers or near strangers, while suburban areas tend to have more killings involving hostile intimates, such as spouses, lovers and business associates, which typically are easier to solve.

Although the city of Los Angeles has only one-eighth of the state’s population, it accounts for nearly one-third of the known murders. Almost as many murders are reported to the Los Angeles police each year as to all other law enforcement agencies in the county combined, FBI statistics show.

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“We need our own system,” Bonino said.

Sheriff’s Capt. Anderson said, “We don’t care if Los Angeles, or Long Beach or any other city, wants to buy its own system.”

“From a technical standpoint, one system can provide the full level of service to all of the agencies in Los Angeles County,” said Tony Doonan, manager of the state’s CAL-ID project. “There may be advantages . . . that the LAPD can identify, but these systems are extremely fast and accurate and our belief is that one can handle the job.”

Modular System

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The NEC Informations Systems Inc. computer, which San Francisco bought and the state later bought, is modular. That means it can be expanded by simply adding more hardware. San Francisco paid for its system entirely with local funds.

Doonan said that if Los Angeles went ahead and bought a system now with its own money, the computer’s modular design means that the city could expand it to serve other law enforcement agencies.

But such an approach would not assure that the state would pick up 70% of the costs, Doonan cautioned.

“We don’t want to wait,” Bonino said. “We see no reason to wait because the technology is available and the city has the means to finance it.”

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The issue of whether to build one system for all law enforcement in the county or two systems, one for LAPD and one for the other agencies, is further complicated by the two different uses planned for such systems.

One use is comparing latent fingerprints from crime scenes to known prints to catch criminals. The other use is to confirm the identity of individuals when they are arrested.

Storing of Prints

One system can accommodate both uses, but which fingerprints are stored in the system affects its usefulness as an investigative tool.

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The state, for example, puts into the $22.5-million NEC system it is building the fingerprints of known major felons, sex offenders, parolees and others considered most likely to commit crimes.

The single major use that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department would have for such a system would be confirming the identity of arrestees, said Capt. Anderson of the Sheriff’s Department, which operates the largest local jail system in country.

Currently, the Sheriff’s Department is unable to establish for certain the identity of one out of three people it processes through its lockups and jails, Anderson said. Bonino said the figure is about the same for the LAPD.

To confirm identity of an arrestee, only his or her thumb prints would be compared with a data base of thumb prints from individuals previously arrested.

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Larger System Sought

Los Angeles police, however, want a system with a much broader data base designed to identify suspects from latent fingerprints left at crime scenes. This fingerprint library would have eight digits from each individual already in police files. Pinkies would be excluded because they account for less than 1% of prints recovered from crime scenes, but would take up 20% of the computer memory in a system with all 10 prints.

The number of thumbs-only searches would far exceed the number of latent print searches. But, because the latent searches often involve unknown factors, such as which finger left a particular print, each latent search requires significantly more computer time.

Bonino and others in LAPD say they want a system with a broader library of fingerprints than the state plan calls for, and they want to have enough computer time to do extensive latent print searches to solve both felony and misdemeanor crimes, as Judge Pajalich favors.

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In San Francisco, where the police computer has such a broad library, one the most productive fingerprint files has been holders of police permits, such as taxi drivers, massage parlor workers and pawn shop operators, Sgt. Ken Moses of the Crime Scene Investigation Unit said.

Permit Holders

Bonino said Los Angeles police want the library to include police permit holders such as massage parlor workers, pawn shop dealers and taxi drivers. The file also would include applicants for police work, holders of press passes and others whose prints may not appear in arrest files.

“We do not retain local ordinance violators, a lot of misdemeanants and local applicants and other fingerprint data,” CAL-ID’s Doonan said. LAPD wants to include prints from such individuals.

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“San Francisco is getting 30% of their total identifications from those types of fingerprint cards, so that is the compelling argument for having these prints in a local system.

“There certainly is merit to being able to search a larger data base” when trying to identify a suspect, Doonan added.


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