Transforming Law Enforcement Efforts With a Regional AFIS

I come from a relatively small township that sits between Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, with somewhere around 65,000 citizens and 80 sworn officers. There are many similar communities across the U.S.—we aren’t necessarily unique. You wouldn’t expect a police department like ours to be on the leading edge of technology or investing in long-term projects, but we had a problem to solve. We’ve got a warrant unit but no ID unit, and an influx of people in the area had taken to using aliases for various reasons, making it difficult to track and serve multiple warrants on the same person who gave different names in different scenarios. We needed to know who these people actually were.

That was the spark for creating the West Chester Regional Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) Database in 2003, which by now has amassed more than 85,000 criminal fingerprint records. It has proved its mettle and given us great ROI, in both anticipated and unanticipated ways.

fingerprint scan

(Photo source: military.media.gov)

Establishing patterns and closing cases: This was, of course, our primary reason and objective in setting up an AFIS. It helps us quickly, efficiently and exhaustively check latent prints collected from crime scenes against a known regional pool. It allows us to tie multiple aliases and crimes to a cohesive identity. It can also search latents against latents, linking unsolved crimes together in a way that wasn’t possible for us before. If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, you might as well search the smallest, most obvious haystack first, but the catch is that you must have a way to do so. Bottom line: We’ve been able to clear up more existing cases and multiple identity issues in our records management system and warrant files each and every year since the AFIS was implemented.

Riding the ripple effect: While our investigators have always been proficient at the crime scene, we still had to log results and then drive them up to the state crime lab, a middleman step that’s since been removed, freeing up valuable time and resources across the force while allowing us to avoid backlogs and get results faster. But a tool like this impacts more than just the process of collecting and running latent prints. Detectives and crime scene personnel are able to evaluate the techniques they are using and gauge their effectiveness. Each set of prints submitted during jail processing can be evaluated for immediate feedback to personnel, quality control and to improve the overall quality of records contained in (and pulled from) the regional database. Both of these latter examples are also beneficial in determining budgets for processing supplies and investment in training.

Collaborating with other agencies: A regional or local AFIS doesn’t take the place of a state database, but it presents opportunities to work in closer cooperation and produce a symbiotic working relationship that augments both our efforts and other agencies’. We’ve set up a model for municipal police forces and county sheriffs in the region to share AFIS resources, records and costs, and even link crimes together across county lines. Furthermore, the state actually asked for our assistance in populating their database with our records, enriching the collective data available to all forces and agencies across Ohio.

AFIS

(CPOA/Flicker)

Providing a deterrent: We’re also using what we refer to as “mobile AFIS” units for fingerprinting and searching identities out in the community. Once word got around that we had and were utilizing the technology, many of those suspects mentioned earlier who were without an ID or using an alias would give their real name up without an argument, because they knew we’d figure out their true identity on the spot via their fingerprint. This initiative is backed up by common statutes or codes that most states call “Stop and Identify,” which permit officers in the field to fingerprint and properly identify any person we legally have reason to stop, provided we have the technological means to do so. (For an example of what applies to my department, here’s the specific Ohio code.)

Identifying future improvements: Beyond informing our day-to-day case work, being able to populate and maintain our own database allows us to analyze data to figure out crime scene processing techniques that are or aren’t working, decide where training is necessary (for individual officers, on specific types of surfaces, etc.) and strategize how we can continue improving our success rate in investigations and apprehensions. None of this significant progress – expected or unexpected, basic or advanced – would have been possible without powerful technology, a forward-thinking approach and the strong desire to be a leader in our field of work.

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David Tivin has been with the West Chester Police Department in West Chester, Ohio since 1991, where he is currently the lieutenant in charge of the Criminal Investigative Section, Special Investigations Unit, Crime Analysis Unit and Criminal Intelligence Unit. He also oversees his agency’s Criminalistics Unit, serves as administrator of the West Chester Regional AFIS and is an IAI-certified latent print examiner (CLPE).