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July 07, 2004
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Case Study: Ontario, California Police Department

Mobile fingerprinting services give Ontario law enforcement an edge

Ontario California Police can check fingerprints on the fly using handheld devices and wireless connectivity.

Ann Punter, forensics manager of the Ontario, CA police department, has worked with the science of fingerprinting and the profession of law enforcement for more than 30 years. In this time, she has learned a few key things:

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Police hate having their time wasted.

They hate it when technology doesn''t work the way it''s supposed to work. And they especially hate when technology doesn''t work the way it''s supposed to and wastes their time.

"If they''re going to play with a new toy, it better work. If it doesn''t work the way they''ve been told it will, they don''t want to play anymore," she said.

These things that police hate the most often intersect in the field. When an officer has stopped a suspect, and that suspect either has no identification or even a false identification, the officer has to choose between letting that person go or taking him into the station for fingerprinting. Once printed, it takes time for the prints to be run.

In one fell swoop, the Ontario Police Department has begun using a technology that saves officers massive amounts of time - and has such a "gee, isn''t this cool" factor that officers fight over who gets to use it. While the 260-member Ontario force currently has only six units equipped with this technology, the renewal of a $1.8 million federal grant aimed at helping local law enforcement deploy technology means the department will have 40 additional units in use by the middle of next year.

What Ontario has is the ability to check fingerprints on the fly, using handheld devices and wireless connectivity to link to the city''s fingerprint database and potentially prove or disprove a person''s identification at an incident scene. The device can also transmit photos, although Ontario isn''t yet using that part of the technology.

The potential for identification is dependent on your having a record (your fingerprints on file from a previous arrest) in Ontario, Upland, Redlands and Pomona - the latter three departments link their databases to Ontario''s. If you are detained and consent to have your prints taken, but are not subsequently arrested, your prints are never recorded.

"We have had so many good success stories with this. If a subject has no identification on them, the remote data terminal allows officers to take two index fingers... it sends the prints and comes back with a hit or no hit," Punter said. "If you get a hit, you get the person''s name, date of birth and identifying number. If you don''t get a hit, there''s nothing in the database.

"The important thing to remember is that the prints, once taken, are searched and deleted. Nothing is retained. If we have someone without an ID and don''t get a hit after fingerprinting them, we don''t want to bother them."

Ontario instituted its program in 1999, after Identix Corp., which was then known as Digital Biometrics and which recently merged with Visionics, its main competitor, approached the department and said it had a device it wanted tested under the auspices of a federal grant.

While the test initially was to be larger in scope and utilizing several police departments, only Ontario had its own fingerprint database. As it turned out, other jurisdiction couldn''t participate because of interoperability issues, Punter said.

Initially, Identix put its wireless Identification-Based Information System (IBIS) in four units - three black and white patrol cars and one undercover gang unit. Officers have used the wireless device for everything from identifying a man with gang ties who hanged himself in a public park to identifying a suspect in a hit-and-run who was caught after a pursuit and refused to give his real name.

"When we first started testing this, some of our gang officers had some gang members in the station, and they recognized their faces but couldn''t put names with those faces. Of course, they weren''t about to give their real names," Punter said. "The officers used the IBIS to positively identify two of the gang members. The third said, ''Ah, I''ll just tell you who I am.''"

"When IBIS was being developed, we took into consideration the needs of officers in the field. The device used to be the size of a shoebox, and now it''s an IPAC with a forensic-quality fingerprinter and camera attached," Frances Zelazny, Identix spokesperson said. "There are other devices (so complicated) that officers forgot whose prints they took at a scene. In Ontario, every person they''ve sent in for search who was in the database was matched accurately."

Sales of biometric hardware - fingerprint sensors, facial scanners and voiceprint analyzers - are expected to reach $600 million by 2003, according to the International Biometric Association trade group.

Just two years ago, only $100 million worth of biometric hardware was sold. Miller Johnson Steichen Kinnard analyst Clint Morrison estimates that a $5 million market exists in each decent-sized city to install wireless devices in police cars.

Larger cities, too, have started taking advantage of wireless technology for use in law enforcement. This fall, Chicago was to have started a pilot project for installing wireless fingerprinting devices in patrol cars although department spokesman Sgt. Greg Hoffman declined to say what technology was being used.

In San Francisco, the SFPD law enforcement agencies recently installed the first palm print database to be used in a major city by a police force. Officials expect the $2.5 million system to decrease property crime by 15 to 20 percent. The Palmprint AFIS system, which was developed by Japanese NEC Technologies, works by matching palm prints with ones already entered into the database. The SFPD computer currently holds 400,000 palm prints. Police officers expect the new system to solve crimes where fingerprints are not always present, such as when the criminal uses a baseball bat.

The impact of wireless technology on police procedure continues to grow with the Ontario project expanding to 8 other areas in San Bernadino county, California. As Indentix''s Zelazny observes, "This technology is clearly changing the way officers operate in the field."

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Hewlett-Packard



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