After the California Justice Department identified the Night Stalker murder suspect the first time it fired up its new automated fingerprint matching system, an official of the Massachusetts company that manufactured the system said his staff was "on Cloud Nine."
Not only did the $22.4-million system designed by NEC Information Systems perform a public service, but it showed the world that the high-priced technology was worth its salt.
The event may be a watershed for the emerging market in computerized equipment designed to automatically match fragments of fingerprints against voluminous fingerprints of previous offenders.
Joe Phillips, national director of fingerprint systems for NEC Information Systems, a Boxborough, Mass., subsidiary of Tokyo-based NEC Inc., estimates the market among law enforcement agencies for fingerprint computers at $2 billion over the next 10 years.
Although automated fingerprint matching technology has been around for about 10 years, so far only about 23 law enforcement agencies in this country have purchased systems, primarily because of their formidable price tags, which start at about $1 million.
In turn, only a handful of companies have entered the field of supplying fingerprint technology to law enforcement agencies because of high development costs, the arduous process of negotiating with government agencies and what some believe to be a relatively small potential market.
But the move to computerize criminal fingerprints is now gaining momentum nationwide as the speed and accuracy of the technology improves and reports spread of its feats at catching criminals.
Also, some law enforcement agencies figure that in the long run they can save money by computerizing fingerprint records that today are routinely checked by hand in processing arrests and applications for professional, gun and alcohol licenses. The California Department of Justice alone expects to save $2 million a year in staff salaries by computerizing the state's 5 million fingerprint cards.
Now that fingerprint technology has a track record, legislatures, city councils and county governments in more cases are agreeing to foot the bill for computer systems.
R. E. (Dick) Snyder, president and chief executive of Del La Rue Printrak, an Anaheim-based firm that leads its industry with 27 operating automated fingerprint systems installed in the United States and abroad, said that, in the last year, the number of police agencies that have obtained funding for automated fingerprint systems has almost tripled.
Currently, he said, Chicago and the Regional Justice Information System in St. Louis are shopping for automated systems. In all, he said, 25 cities, counties and state agencies anticipate going out to bid this year on systems. They include Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Massachusetts, Florida and Michigan and the cities of New York and Dallas.
NEC obtained a $22.4-million contract to install the main Cal-ID computerized fingerprint system in Sacramento, which will be the largest and most sophisticated in the nation.
NEC's Phillips predicts that the development of local or regional computer systems for fingerprint matching is only the first step. Next will be the task of tying all of the systems together, perhaps through satellites, so that law enforcement agencies in various parts of the country can search one another's fingerprint banks. Then will come international linkups between nations to track down criminals.
The National Bureau of Standards currently is working with suppliers and users of fingerprint computers to develop a translation language that systems built by different manufacturers can use to communicate.
Other manufacturers have set their sights on what they say is a potentially even larger market for fingerprint matching devices that, if produced cheaply enough, could be used in place of locks and cards to control access to everything from banks and defense plants to automated tellers and computerized data.
But they say that, right now, the police market for fingerprint matching systems is the ripest for plucking and will serve to prove the technology to prospective commercial users.
Useless to Investigators
Without computerization, millions of fingerprints of potential suspects are virtually useless to crime investigators. In the city of Los Angeles alone there are 4,000 unsolved homicides for which authorities say they have fingerprints of suspected murderers.
Part of the problem is that law enforcement agencies usually catalogue huge volumes of fingerprints by a manual system that requires clear identification of all 10 fingers for matches. That's fine for booking arrestees, whose full fingerprints are rolled in ink. But in burglaries and other crimes where there are no witnesses, usually only a few scattered and often distorted prints are left behind. Because of the huge volume of fingerprints on file, it is usually unfeasible to search them for a match with individual crime-scene prints unless police have a particular suspect in mind.
The Los Angeles Police Department says it could take up to 67 years for one of its officers to match a print of a single finger by manually searching the 1.7 million fingerprint cards in its criminal files.
Peggy James, criminal fingerprint examiner who helped to acquire an automated system for the Houston Police Department in 1979, said that, previously, the department collected fingerprints at crime scenes mostly for public relations.
Find Culprits Fast
"Officers would go to a crime scene and throw powder around and make the complainant think they were doing something," she said. "But then the prints would be filed away never to be touched again unless a suspect was developed."
By contrast, fingerprint computers have tracked down culprits almost instantaneously. Since the introduction of the system, Houston authorities have identified 540 criminal suspects, including five convicted murderers.
When San Francisco activated a computerized fingerprint matching system in 1984, within seven minutes it identified a man who fatally shot a 46-year-old woman during a 1978 burglary attempt. The man confessed to the crime after he was confronted with a copy of fingerprints lifted from a second-story windowsill of the woman's home that matched his own. In police investigations, confessions to crimes prior to a court trial are "very unusual," said Ken Moses, project director of San Francisco's computer program. But when the city computer finds a fingerprint match, he said, "more than 75% of the time the person pleads guilty before trial. It is like the district attorney holding four aces."
In the 15 months since San Francisco installed its automated fingerprint matching system, it has been credited with identifying 1,234 suspects and solving 992 cases, including burglaries, robberies, rapes, homicides and auto thefts.
Los Angeles police officers, who also are lobbying for a fingerprint computer, say that, if they had acquired one by June, 1984, when police first lifted a fingerprint at the scene of a murder linked to the Night Stalker, it is probable that the suspect, Richard Ramirez, would have been arrested much earlier and possibly other lives would have been saved.
Bill Rathburn of the LAPD's support services bureau called fingerprint automation "one of the most significant steps forward in law enforcement perhaps since the two-way radio."
The state's new Cal-ID system will give it the capability to match single crime-scene prints against a computer bank of 1.5 million known felons. Also, according to the state's master plan, there will be a county-by-county network of computer systems with varying capabilities linked into the central state computer. The satellite systems represent about $21.5 million of potential contracts.
Counties are expected to start negotiating contracts as soon as the state Legislature acts on a bill to provide 70% state funding for the local fingerprint systems.
"Vendors will be entering the California market and competing tooth-and-nail," said Tim Ruggles, a U.S. representative of Morpho Systems S.A., an Avon, France-based subsidiary of Caisse des Depots, a French financial institution with $140 billion in assets.
Only two months ago, Ruggles said, Morpho decided to aggressively market its automated fingerprint system in the United States. Morpho, which recently developed a fingerprint computer for the French National Police, plans to install a demonstration model in Carlsbad, Calif., in December, he said.
Printrak's Snyder said that, so far, few other companies have ventured into the field because of "the big entry fee." He said that, over the years, between $20 million and $30 million has been invested in building the company's system, based on technology that its London-based parent, Thomas De La Rue Group of Cos., bought from Rockwell International in 1981.