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The Latest in Mobile AFIS

In the past few decades, advances in biometric identity technology have led to rapid replacement of the traditional inked fingerprint card that often took months to process. By affording instant identification, this technology has proven itself to be an effective tool in both border control and crime reduction.

Although the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) originated almost 30 years ago, the system was cost prohibitive for most law enforcement agencies. Because demand for its use was minimal, only a handful of companies offered AFIS technology. But as the law enforcement community began to recognize the system’s potential, the industry responded with cutting-edge technology. Through the science of biometrics, AFIS utilizes digital imaging to obtain, store, and analyze fingerprint data.

In recent years, biometrics has been combined with wireless technology to produce mobile fingerprinting. Providing remote access allows officers in the field to identify individuals and determine if they have outstanding warrants. Potentially dangerous situations can then be managed more effectively to ensure officer safety. It is estimated that as many as 40% of people questioned during a police encounter lack proper identification.

Through the use of these handheld AFIS devices, which are about the size of a PDA, identification is obtained on the spot, saving time that would be spent bringing the subject to the precinct. The subject’s finger is placed on the platen end of the unit, a digital image of the fingerprint is created, and the data is sent to a wireless data server. It is then matched against one or more databases, and AFIS processes the results. If a match is found, the information from the designated database is forwarded to the officer’s handheld device, allowing the officer to confirm the individual’s identity.

AFIS Technology

Two biometric methods are typically available for fingerprinting: capacitance scanning and optical scanning. A capacitance scanner relies on electrical current to generate an image and requires a true fingerprint shape, making the system harder to trick. Optical scanning utilizes a charge coupled device (CCD), which creates a visual impression of a fingerprint through patterns of reflected light. Due in part to its cost-effectiveness, the optical scanner is the most widely used method in law enforcement.

Motorola was the first company to implement real-time AFIS. By uniting mobile applications with AFIS technology, Motorola offers innovative solutions for law enforcement agencies on all levels. The company’s Mobile Automated Fingerprint Identification System allows access to databases within their own networks, as well as others, such as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). This advanced technology provides search options for both identification and verification purposes. With the identification method, fingerprints are searched against local and/or remote databases that contain thousands of records. The verification method matches a specific print against another print to confirm identity.

In the late 1990s, the National Institute of Justice provided funding for the development of the Integrated Biometric Identification System. The original IBIS device weighed in at 5 pounds, produced search results in three to four minutes and cost $6,000. Several years later, Cogent Systems became the first company to offer Bluetooth-enabled technology.

With BlueCheck, captured fingerprint data can be securely transferred to any Bluetooth-enabled device and configured with existing equipment. It allows the host device to submit data to a remote server, and the received results are displayed on its LCD. BlueCheck weighs 3 ounces, provides search results in less than a minute, and costs $1,600. Cogent also offers a customizable software package known as CAFIS (Cogent Automated Fingerprint Identification System). Touted as one of the most accurate systems in the world, CAFIS is networked for local, regional, and national databases.

Another company that offers advanced technology in mobile fingerprinting is Identix, now merged wit L-1 Identity Solutions. The company’s handheld device integrates with IBIS and offers an auto-capture feature that increases the quality of the data submitted for more accurate results. Configured to work with any PDA and on any wireless network, it was the recipient of the 2007 Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association’s Emerging Technology Award.

In the past five years, numerous other technology companies have emerged that offer a variety of hardware options. However, Motorola, Cogent and Identix continue to be the major players in the field of mobile AFIS technology.

Effective Tool on Street

When mobile AFIS was implemented in Portland, OR, Officer Joe Luiz immediately recognized its potential after pulling over a subject for a minor traffic violation. Despite having several forms of valid identification, the individual’s behavior seemed suspicious to Luiz, and he proceeded to obtain fingerprints with his handheld AFIS device. He then ran them through the database and learned that the subject was wanted by the U.S. Marshals as an aggravated felon.

Identix provided both the software and hardware for Portland’s IBIS system. The agency recently upgraded to the RDT4, a PDA cell phone that has the ability to transmit all data back to the office. Searches are performed in the Western Identification Network (WIN), a multi-state fingerprint database that currently encompasses seven Western states. If the search comes back with a hit, IBIS checks the Portland Police database for demographic information and the local mug shot database for a photo. After the Oregon Law Enforcement Data System (LEDS) is checked for warrants, all the information is returned to the officer’s PDA.

According to Christopher Wormdahl, Portland Police ID technologies coordinator, mobile AFIS has proved useful in the apprehension of subjects. Consider these statistics: 62% of subjects fingerprinted have come back with a hit, 35% of all subjects fingerprinted gave a false name, and 26% of all subjects fingerprinted had outstanding warrants.

While this new technology can be intimidating to some, most of the officers view mobile AFIS as an effective tool in law enforcement. Wormdahl said, “By giving the officers access quickly to a subjects’ identity, and with the added databases returning flags and warrants, the system does provide more protection (via quicker information) for the officers.”

Identification technology can be beneficial to law-abiding citizens as well. An incident in Ontario, CA, where IBIS was introduced in 2000, is a prime example. A driver who was pulled over for a traffic violation was asked for identification and explained that he had left his wallet at home. The police officer ran a search, and an arrest record under that name and address was found. The driver willingly submitted to mobile fingerprinting, which revealed that his prints did not match those associated with the arrest record. Police discovered that when the subject’s brother had recently been arrested, he had given the subject’s name instead of his own.

Due to its ability to process multiple people at once, mobile AFIS is also extremely useful in curtailing gang activity. When recently confronted with breaking up a gang fight, Ontario police officers lined up the subjects, fingerprinted them, and obtain positive identifications within minutes. Before this technology, the subjects would have to be transported to the station and processed, placing the officers in additional danger.

The Future of Mobile AFIS

Biometric technology continues to evolve, as is evidenced by the FBI’s $1 billion project to build the world’s largest database of physical characteristics. In addition to fingerprints, digital images of palm patterns and faces are currently being added to the database. The Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) division oversees the operation, which will eventually allow identification through iris images and even the shape of an earlobe. All fields of law enforcement will benefit from this new technology, from police officers in the field to crime scene investigators to intelligence agents.

Because of the expense involved with this type of technology, police agencies look to federal grants to subsidize the cost. When the Portland department initiated mobile fingerprinting in 2004, it received $250,000 in grants to purchase its IBIS units. The Lee County, FL Sheriff’s Office wanted to implement mobile fingerprinting and is currently reviewing the technology options available. According to Captain Rich Schnieders, operational support group commander, cost is a determining factor in deciding what solutions would work best for them. Through a grant, they may soon be receiving five units for testing, and he hopes to have a fully operational biometric program in place in the near future.

Although the science of biometrics is still in its infancy, there is already strong evidence supporting its effectiveness in law enforcement. However, due to budgetary concerns, securing this technology will continue to be a challenge for many police agencies. It is essential that law enforcement and government work together to make it happen.

Kitsap County, WA is a perfect example. Through the efforts of the chief of corrections and two U.S. representatives, the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office received more than $2 million in congressional earmarks, some of which went for the purchase of 80 handheld devices.

The bottom line is that mobile AFIS protects officers in the field, expedites subject identification during time-critical encounters, and keeps criminals off the street. This alone makes a compelling argument in favor of this exciting new technology.

Susan Geoghegan holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and is a published author. She can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2008

Rating : 10.0

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