Criminals aren’t in the habit of leaving their mug shots behind
for police to find. They often do leave something that comes close,
– a fingerprint.
By Lori Stuenkel
Gilroy – Criminals aren’t in the habit of leaving their mug shots behind for police to find. They often do leave something that comes close, though – a fingerprint.
Gilroy, like other smaller police departments, depends on a larger department to match fingerprints collected from a crime scene to those in local, state, or nationwide databases. The San Jose Police Department has both the equipment and manpower needed to process the lifted prints.
At least one recent burglary victim says the system, which can take up to two months to provide a match, needs to change.
“I think they need to do it right here in town,” said Bob Littlejohn, owner of Littlejohn’s Jewelry at 8220 Monterey St.
Fingerprints are crucial to identifying suspects because they are truly unique. The ridges of a fingerprint form before birth and, except for scarring, do not naturally change during a person’s lifetime. No two individuals, even identical twins, have the same fingerprints.
Even partial prints of a finger or palm can often provide a match between a crime scene and a suspect, said Nina Sheleman, Gilroy Police Department’s property evidence technician.
“We want to make sure that it’s done right and we get some prints,” she said.
Getting the fingerprints of someone arrested for a crime is easy, electronic, and completed in-town. But the process is more involved for crime scene evidence.
After dusting to make prints visible, officers take a picture of them and create a “card” that will be sent to San Jose.
It’s not always possible to dust for fingerprints on a porous or textured surface. Methods besides dusting can be used to obtain prints from unusual surfaces, but GPD does not currently have the capability to use them. In one method, super glue is heated until it evaporates so that the gas makes the fingerprint visible. If the odd surface containing the fingerprint is small enough, Sheleman sends the item to the Santa Clara County Crime Lab, as she was planning to do with a screwdriver involved in a recent commercial burglary. Technicians at the lab will get the fingerprint and put it on a CD that Gilroy will hand over to San Jose.
“It depends on the severity of the crime, how quickly that gets processed,” Sheleman said. The turnaround time on collected fingerprints varies depending on the severity of the crime: For example, crimes resulting in death or bodily harm get handled before property crimes, such as vandalism.
SJPD runs the prints or partial prints through a local database independent of the state and national databases. If the computer produces a match, at least two examiners will verify its findings – three in a homicide case, according to Sheleman.
“They can go beyond the local system to the statewide system through the (Department of Justice),” Sheleman said. “If it’s a major case, they can go to the national system through the FBI.”
Littlejohn wants the system to change once GPD gets its new station. In September, thieves broke through the wall of the store and took $300,000 worth of merchandise.
“It took five to six weeks to do it, and they didn’t find anything in their database, and it didn’t go further than that,” he said.
Sheleman did not know the policy for searching the state’s database after checking the local one, but Littlejohn said the state database was not checked in his case. Besides having no suspects a month-and-a-half after the crime, he said, there also was no hope of recovering any of the stolen items.
“If it takes that long, to me it seems like anything (the burglars) have – it’s long gone,” Littlejohn said. “They are spending all this money on a police station, they need to get a little lab, get the people and do it. That’s how you catch people.”
The process will not change with the new station, although there will be more room and better facilities to obtain prints.
“It’s like a science,” Sgt. Kurt Svardal said. “Dedicating an officer to get to a level where he could come into court and testify as an expert on a fingerprint comparison would be very difficult for GPD.”
The GPD, like other county departments, contributes to maintaining the county lab, which will continue to cover the cost of cross-checking the fingerprints.
Unlike those from a crime scene, prints collected from people arrested in Gilroy are taken electronically – resulting in matches within 10 to 15 minutes if the suspect is already in the system – using Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems, or AFIS. That technology will be in the new station, as well, and eventually the department will be able to file palm prints.
Even if there are crime scene prints that don’t match names in any of the databases, they remain on file and will “red flag” a person Gilroy officers arrest, once the suspect’s fingerprints are scanned.