New fingerprint technology makes impression on West Palm Beach Police Department's gang detectives

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Seconds count to gang unit detectives William Nealy and Steven Mooney.  As the pair patrols the streets of the Tamarind neighborhood, they know the faces and habits of many who live there.  Their experience helps them spot suspicious behavior and crimes underway, then look for potential retaliation steps ahead of criminals.

A new tool aims to save them time and improve their safety in the field.  Gang detectives now carry fingerprint scanners and a laptop.  The portable devices allow them to scan fingertips and instantly receive feedback about criminal history from the field.

"We can basically see who we're dealing with for officer safety issues," explained Mooney.

On this Wednesday, the pair come across "Mister Storms."  Nealy and Mooney have built a rapport with him.  Storms has been arrested in the past.  He voluntarily allows the officers to scan his fingertips so he can learn about the new tool. 

Storms tells the officers that he has lied to other officers in the past about his name.  Now, seeing the new technology, he plans to run if he gets in trouble again.

"That's what I'm saying.  You all are cheating, so now I'm just gonna' run.  That's right, I'm gonna' run," he says.

Back at the police station, latent fingerprints from a robbery scene are being uploaded to a system with new fingerprint software.  The computers are able to pinpoint "minutia," or tiny characteristics that are entirely unique to a fingerprint.  Then, the system can scan through a massive and ever-growing database to find "hits."

Senior Latent Print Examiner Rob Crowetz explained, "It's a lot more accurate and it's a lot more efficient."

Such a process used to take hours, days, or even weeks.  Examiners had to carefully look for characteristics by hand before painstakingly combing through hundreds of prints on file.  The system will narrow down the search to its top hits, before Crowetz looks at the prints by hand.

Now, prints dating back decades from cases in West Palm Beach have been uploaded to the system.  Old cases in the system that are linked to new offenses are flagged for crime scene supervisor King Brown.  He says, every case in the database is being worked every day.

"The AFIS system works every day, checks all of the, what's called the unsolved latent file, every day.  every night," Brown said.

In the weeks the office system has been used, it has flagged new links to old cases dating back to the 1990s. 

Examiners say, the next step will be retina scans and photos being included in the system.  Brown believes this will happen in the next five years.

Now, what's being uploaded in West Palm Beach is being shared with several South Florida departments, a handful of other states and the FBI, broadening the fingerprint search, and the database continues to grow daily.

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