Palm print technology gaining favor with police

By Charlie Bier
Houston Chronicle

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Tex. While a recent trend for some metropolitan law enforcement agencies is to develop digital databases to collect and match palm prints of criminals, it's old hat for Montgomery County officials.

Sgt. B.W. Emmons with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office crime scene investigation unit, said he's glad technology is spurring law enforcement agencies about 30 nationwide so far to file palm prints.

The process is effective in catching criminals, but many agencies haven''t adopted palm printing because it often can be time-consuming and costly.

Emmons, however, said he's always favored palm printing because of the extra crime-solving benefits it gives law enforcement.

"We''ve been taking palm prints for about 15 years," said Emmons, who said the MCSO has thousands on file.

"Most agencies just take fingerprints. Not many take palms. If you don''t take palms, you''re missing a lot."

Technological advances have made palm print databases suddenly popular, because in many cases, Emmons said, palm prints are sometimes the only documentable prints left behind.

"Probably 50 percent of crime scene prints are palm prints," Emmons said.

A recent front-page story in the New York Times listed Harris County as one of several metropolitan areas including Los Angeles, Miami, Indianapolis, Palm Beach and Philadelphia in the process of installing a computerized scanner and database to store and read palm prints.

The technology will enable the matching of palm prints with computerized images, an often underutilized tool in solving crime, said Montgomery County Sheriff Guy Williams.

"There''s a real need for it," Williams said. "A lot of the time, all you get is the palm. (Criminals) are real worried about hitting their fingertips, but they''ll often leave a good palm print behind."

Although there's no national registry now for palm prints, the FBI is investigating the feasibility of establishing one.

A select group of agencies, such as the Montgomery County Sheriff''s Office, have been documenting palm prints with their own old-fashioned systems, as opposed to Live Scan, the most common type of computer scanning system.

"I''m glad Harris County is getting it, because they weren''t doing it at all before, but I''d still prefer the inked cards, because quality''s not as good with Live Scan."

Emmons said the newfound focus on palm prints will enable a widespread concentration among law enforcement officials to catch more criminals, an idea he''s been promoting since he came to Montgomery County from the Houston Police Department in 1989.

"The first thing I wanted to do was institute a palm print file," Emmons said. "Most agencies just take fingerprints. Not many take palms."

Emmons said the expense of training and staffing latent print examiners has kept many agencies from utilizing the method.

"A lot of smaller agencies don''t do it for that reason," Emmons said.

If technological advances have suddenly made palm printing popular, not all law enforcement officials agree computer-scanned images are the most effective.

Emmons said he still prefers the old-fashioned method -- inked prints that are transferred to index-type cards and filed away.

"We don''t have a (computer scanner) here in Montgomery County, and I''m glad we don''t," Emmons said.

"I''d rather do it the manual way," Emmons said. "(Scanners) don''t do as good a job. The computer printouts are not the same quality as ink prints. They (ink prints) get better detail. They''re much clearer."

Williams, however, said as expense and quality of the systems changes over the next few years, he isn''t ruling out the possibility of eventually switching to computerized palm print matching.

"(Computerized palm printing) has a lot of applications for the future and it''s something we may look at," Williams said.

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