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Fingerprints offer a reliable means of personal identification. That is the essential explanation for fingerprints having replaced other methods of establishing the identities of persons reluctant to admit previous arrests. 1
The science of fingerprint identification stands out among all other forensic sciences for many reasons, including the following:
Has served governments worldwide for over 100 years to provide accurate identification of criminals. No two fingerprints have ever been found alike in many billions of human and automated computer comparisons. Fingerprints are the basis for criminal history foundation at every police agency on earth.
Established the first forensic professional organization, the International Association for Identification (IAI), in 1915.
Established the first professional certification program for forensic scientists, the IAI's Certified Latent Print Examiner (CLPE) program (in 1977), issuing certification to those meeting stringent criteria and revoking certification for serious errors such as erroneous identifications.
For more than a century, has remained the most commonly used forensic evidence worldwide - in most jurisdictions fingerprint examination cases match or outnumber all other forensic examination casework combined.
Continues to expand as the premier method for identifying persons, with hundreds of thousands of persons daily added to fingerprint repositories worldwide.
Fingerprints harvested from crime "scenes lead to more suspects and generate more evidence in court than all other forensic laboratory techniques combined. 2"
Other visible human characteristics, such as facial features, tend to change with age, but fingerprints are relatively persistent. Barring injuries or surgery causing deep scarring, or diseases such as leprosy damaging the formative layers of friction ridge skin, finger and palm print features have never been shown to move about or change their unit relationship throughout the life of a person (and injuries, scarring and diseases tend to exhibit telltale indicators of unnatural change).
In earlier civilizations, branding or maiming were used to mark persons as criminals. The thief was deprived of the hand which committed the thievery. Ancient Romans employed the tattoo needle to identify and prevent desertion of mercenary soldiers from their ranks.
Before the mid-1800s, law enforcement officers with extraordinary visual memories, so-called "camera eyes," identified previously arrested offenders by sight alone. Photography lessened the burden on memory, but was not the answer to the criminal identification problem. Personal appearances change.
Around 1870, French anthropologist Alphonse Bertillon devised a system to measure and record the dimensions of certain bony parts of the body. These measurements were reduced to a formula which, theoretically, would apply only to one person and would not change during his/her adult life.
The Bertillon System was generally accepted for thirty years. But the anthropometric measurement system never recovered from the events of 1903, when a man named Will West was sentenced to the US Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. It was discovered there was already a prisoner at the penitentiary, whose Bertillon measurements were nearly the same, and his name was William West.
Upon investigation, there were indeed two men who looked very similar. Their names were William and Will West. Their Bertillon measurements were close enough to identify them as the same person. However, fingerprint comparisons quickly and correctly determined they were two different people. (According to prison records publicized years later, the West men were apparently identical twin brothers and each had a record of correspondence with the same immediate family relatives.)
Ancient artifacts including carvings similar to friction ridge skin have been discovered in many places throughout the world. Picture writing of a hand with ridge patterns was discovered in Nova Scotia. In ancient Babylon, fingerprints were used on clay tablets for business transactions.
BC 200s - ChinaChinese records from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) include details about using handprints as evidence during burglary investigations.
In a "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London" paper in 1684, Dr. Nehemiah Grew was the first European to
publish friction ridge skin observations.
Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo's 1685 book, "Anatomy of the Human Body" also described friction ridge skin (papillary ridge) details.
In 1686, Marcello Malpighi, an anatomy professor at the University of Bologna, noted fingerprint ridges, spirals and loops in his treatise. A layer of skin was named after him; "Malpighi" layer, which is approximately 1.8 mm thick.
No mention of friction ridge skin uniqueness or permanence was made by Grew, Bidloo or Malpighi.
1788 - Mayer
German anatomist and doctor J. C. A. Mayer wrote the book Anatomical Copper-plates with Appropriate Explanations containing drawings of friction ridge skin patterns. Mayer wrote, “Although the arrangement of skin ridges is never duplicated in two persons, nevertheless the similarities are closer among some individuals. In others the differences are marked, yet in spite of their peculiarities of arrangement all have a certain likeness” (Cummins and Midlo, 1943, pp 12–13). Mayer was the first to declare that friction ridge skin is unique.
In 1823, Jan Evangelista Purkinje, anatomy professor at the University of Breslau, published his thesis discussing nine fingerprint patterns. Purkinje also made no mention of the value of fingerprints for personal identification. Purkinje is referred to in most English language publications as John Evangelist Purkinje.
The purpose was was to "... to frighten [him] out of all thought of repudiating his signature." The native was suitably impressed, and Herschel made a habit of requiring palm prints--and later, simply the prints of the right Index and Middle fingers--on every contract made with the locals. Personal contact with the document, they believed, made the contract more binding than if they simply signed it. Thus, the first wide-scale, modern-day use of fingerprints was predicated, not upon scientific evidence, but upon superstitious beliefs.
As his fingerprint collection grew, however, Herschel began to note that the inked impressions could, indeed, prove or disprove identity. While his experience with fingerprinting was admittedly limited, Sir William Herschel's private conviction that all fingerprints were unique to the individual, as well as permanent throughout that individual's life, inspired him to expand their use.
American microscopist Thomas Taylor proposed that finger and palm prints left on any object might be used to solve crimes. The July 1877 issue of The American Journal of Microscopy and Popular Science included the following description of a lecture by Taylor:
Hand Marks Under the Microscope. - In a recent lecture, Mr. Thomas Taylor, microscopist to the Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., exhibited on a screen & view of the markings on the palms of the hands and the tips of the fingers, and called attention to the possibility of identifying criminals, especially murderers, by comparing the marks of the hands left upon any object with impressions in wax taken from the hands of suspected persons. In the case of murderers, the marks of bloody bands would present a very favorable opportunity. This is a new system of palmistry.
In 1880, Faulds forwarded an explanation of his classification system and a sample of the forms he had designed for recording inked impressions, to Sir Charles Darwin. Darwin, in advanced age and ill health, informed Dr. Faulds that he could be of no assistance to him, but promised to pass the materials on to his cousin, Francis Galton.
Also in 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds published an article in the Scientific Journal, "Nature" (nature). He discussed fingerprints as a means of personal identification, and the use of printers ink as a method for obtaining such fingerprints. He is also credited with the first fingerprint identification of a greasy fingerprint left on an alcohol bottle.
Juan Vucetich, an Argentine Police Official, began the first fingerprint files based on Galton pattern types. At first, Vucetich included the Bertillon
System with the files.
At Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1892, Inspector Eduardo Alvarez made the first criminal fingerprint identification. He was able to identify Francisca Rojas, a woman who murdered her two sons and cut her own throat in an attempt to place blame on another. Her bloody print was left on a door post, proving her identity as the murderer. Alvarez was trained by Juan Vucetich.
Sir Francis Galton published his book, "Finger Prints" in 1892, establishing the individuality and permanence of fingerprints. The book included the first published classification system for fingerprints. In 1893, Galton published the book "Decipherment of Blurred Finger Prints," and 1895 the book "Fingerprint Directories."
Galton's primary interest in fingerprints was as an aid in determining heredity and racial background. While he soon discovered that fingerprints offered no firm clues to an individual's intelligence or genetic history, he was able to scientifically prove what Herschel and Faulds already suspected: that fingerprints do not change over the course of an individual's lifetime, and that no two fingerprints are exactly the same. According to his calculations, the odds of two individual fingerprints being the same were 1 in 64 billion.Galton identified the characteristics by which fingerprints can be identified. A few of these same characteristics (minutia) are basically still in use today, and are sometimes referred to as Galton Details.
The Fingerprint Branch at New Scotland Yard (Metropolitan Police) was created in July 1901 using the Henry System of Fingerprint Classification.
U.S. Army begins using fingerprints.
Edmond Locard wrote that if 12 points (Galton's Details) were the same between two fingerprints, it would suffice as a positive identification5. Locard's 12 points seems to have been based on an unscientific "improvement" over the eleven anthropometric measurements (arm length, height, etc.) used to "identify" criminals before the adoption of fingerprints.
By the end of World War II, most American fingerprints experts agreed there was no scientific basis for a minimum number of corresponding minutiae to determine an "identification" and the twelve point rule was dropped from the FBI publication, "The Science of Fingerprints."
By 1946, the FBI had processed 100 million fingerprint cards in manually maintained files; and by 1971, 200 million cards.
With the introduction of automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) technology, the files were later split into computerized criminal files and manually maintained civil files. Many of the manual files were duplicates though, the records actually represented somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 million criminals, and an unknown number (tens of millions) of individuals represented in the civil files.
At New Orleans, Louisiana on 1 August 1977, delegates to the 62nd Annual Conference of the International Association for Identification (IAI) voted to establish the world's first certification program for fingerprint experts. Since 1977, the IAI's Latent Print Certification Board has proficiency tested thousands of applicants, and periodically proficiency tests all IAI Certified Latent Print Examiners (CLPEs).
Contrary to claims (since the 1990s) that fingerprint experts profess their body of practitioners never make erroneous identifications, the Latent Print Certification program proposed, adopted, and in-force since 1977, specifically recognizes such mistakes sometimes occur, and must be addressed by the Latent Print Certification Board.
During the past three decades, CLPE status has become a prerequisite for journeyman fingerprint expert positions in many US state and federal government forensic laboratories. IAI CLPE status is considered by many identification professionals to be a measurement of excellence.
At the International Symposium on Latent
Fingerprint Detection and Identification, conducted by the Israeli
National Police Agency, at Neurim, Israel, June, 1995, the Neurim
Declaration was issued. The declaration, (authored by Pierre Margot and an
American fingerprint expert from the Army Crime Lab), states "No
scientific basis exists for requiring that a pre-determined minimum number
of friction ridge features must be resent in two impression in order to
establish a positive identification." The declaration was unanimously
approved by all present, and later, signed by 28 persons from the
following 11 countries: Australia, Canada, France, Holland, Hungary,
Isreal, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and United
INTERPOL's Automated Fingerprint Identification System repository exceeds 150,000 sets of fingerprints for important international criminal records from 190 member countries. Over 170 countries have 24 x 7 interface ability with INTERPOL expert fingerprint services.
The largest AFIS repository in America is operated by the Department of Homeland Security's US Visit Program, containing over 120 million persons' fingerprints, many in the form of two-finger records. The US Visit Program has been migrating from two flat (not rolled) fingerprints to ten flat fingerprints since 2007. "Fast capture" technology currently enables recording of ten simultaneous fingerprint impressions in as little as 15 seconds per person.
The largest criminal fingerprint AFIS repository in America is the FBI's Next Generation Identification (NGI) in Clarksburg, WV. NGI has more than 60 million individual computerized fingerprint records (both criminal and civil applicant records). NGI is the FBI's most valuable service to American law enforcement, providing accurate and rapid fingerprint identification services.
Recently, FBI civil fingerprint files in NGI (mainly federal employees post-May 2000) have become searchable by US law enforcement agencies. Many enlisted military service member fingerprint cards received after 1990, and most military-related fingerprint cards received after 19 May 2000, have been computerized and will be searchable.
The FBI is continuing to expand their automated identification activities to include other biometrics such as palm, face, and iris. Face search capabilities in NGI are a reality for many US law enforcement agencies accessing NGI, and several are participating in iris pilot projects.All US states and many large cities have their own AFIS databases, each with a subset of fingerprint records that is not stored in any other database. Many also store and search palmprints. Law enforcement fingerprint interface standards are important to enable sharing records and reciprocal searches to identify criminals.
Interpol, the European Union's Prüm Treaty, the FBI's Next Generation Identification and other initiatives seek to improve cross-jurisdiction sharing (probing and sharing/pushing) of important finger and palm print data to identify criminals.
1 Some of the above wording is credited to the writing of Greg Moore, from his previous fingerprint history page at http://www.brawleyonline.com/consult/history.htm (no longer there). Also, David L. von Minden, Ph.D. helped correct typos his students kept cutting and pasting into their homework.
2 Interpol, "General Position on Fingerprint Evidence," by the Interpol European Expert
Group on Fingerprint Identification, at www.interpol.int/public/Forensic/fingerprints/WorkingParties/IEEGFI/ieegfi.asp#val
4 Margot, Pierre and Quinche, Nicolas, "Coulier, Paul-Jean (1824-1890): A Precursor in the History of Fingermark Detection and Their Potential Use for Identifying Their Source (1863)", Journal of forensic identification, 60 (2), March-April 2010, pp. 129-134, (published by the International Association for Identification).
5 As of 2016, the term positive identification (meaning absolute certainty) has been replaced in reports and testimony by most agencies/experts with more accurate terminology, including variations of wording such as the following:
Examination and comparison of similarities and differences between the impressions resulted in the opinion there is a much greater support for the impressions originating from the same source than there is for them originating from different sources.
There are sufficient features in agreement to conclude the two areas of friction ridge impressions originated from the same source. Identification of an impression to one source is the decision that the likelihood the impression was made by another (different) source is so remote it is considered as a practical impossibility.
A related 2014 paper titled "Individualization is dead, long live individualization! Reforms of reporting practices for fingerprint analysis in the United States" by Simon Cole, Professor at University of California, Irvine is linked here.6 Herschel information from a Fingerprint Identification presentation by T. Dickerson Cook at the annual meeting of the Texas Division, International Association for Identification, at Midland, Texas on 9 August 1954 (documented in Identification News, April 1964, pages 5-10).