Fingerprint Scans Speed Background Checks


Seeking to speed up criminal background checks on new employees, Los Angeles school officials have begun using optical fingerprint scanners to search for prior convictions and cut delays in getting job applicants onto campuses.

The 13 refrigerator-sized devices, operating at sites across the Los Angeles Unified School District, instantly transmit digitized fingerprints over phone lines to the state Department of Justice. Replies arrive by computer within 72 hours--compared with the monthlong wait when the district mails the same prints to Sacramento.

“We can get classroom teachers through the system in a smaller amount of time,” said Walt Greene, L.A. Unified’s director of employee services. “That helps with the continuity of the program.”

L.A. Unified’s system is part of a new statewide computer initiative intended to cut delays in background checks of school employees across California.


The justice department is installing 100 of the machines at county offices of education, sheriff’s departments and other sites. The state gave four of the machines to L.A. Unified, which has spent nearly $450,000 for nine others.

The district is believed to be the first in the state to tap into the new system, which state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren will unveil at an L.A. Unified news conference Wednesday.

Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified also are getting machines.

State legislation enacted last year called for the justice department to create the statewide computer system. The legislation came in the wake of the slaying of a student at Rio Linda High School near Sacramento. The suspect was a school custodian whose previous felony conviction was unknown to school officials.

State law now requires school districts to conduct background searches before hiring prospective employees. Those found to have convictions for serious or violent felonies are not eligible to work for schools.

Besides shortening waits, the computerized system will produce more reliable prints, school officials said. Without the computers, prints are made by rolling applicants’ fingers on a clear chemical and then on a fingerprint card.

State officials say such methods produce smudges about 5% of the time, forcing them to return the prints by mail to school districts to be redone.

“With better quality prints you are going to get better accuracy out of the system,” said Gary Cooper, assistant chief of the state Department of Justice’s criminal identification bureau.


With the new devices, the applicants place their fingers over optical scanners, which in turn display the digitized prints on video screens and send the images over phone lines to Sacramento.