DEA to Tap State/Local Databases

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said it plans to buy hardware and software from three companies to help it tap into numerous state and local government fingerprint databases to cut the time it takes to electronically identify fingerprints taken from a crime scene.

The DEA plans to buy an undisclosed amount of equipment from NEC Technologies Inc., North American Morpho Systems Inc. and Printrak International Inc., the three companies whose automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) are most widely used by state and local governments to match fingerprints they collect at crime scenes with fingerprints stored in databases.

"What these terminals would do is act as remote-access devices," said Tim Nitzsche-Ruggles, senior vice president at North American Morpho Systems, whose products are part of the $589 million Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), a fingerprint identification system that the FBI is constructing.

Capt. Lewis Vass, who oversees AFIS for the Virginia State Police Department, said the DEA's access to state fingerprint databases would pose no problems, such as slowing down fingerprint queries to Virginia's AFIS. "We don't really notice when you add someone else to it," he said. About 200 police agencies in Virginia regularly query the state AFIS database, Lewis said.

The DEA will not buy a system for collecting and maintaining its own fingerprint database -- a task that the agency will accomplish through an automated booking system project that the DEA is now developing, DEA officials said [FCW, June 23].

With the planned purchase from the three vendors, the DEA plans to slash months from the process of matching stored fingerprints to those taken from a crime scene. "This information will increase DEA's ability to solve cases through the identification of fingerprints developed on evidence processed in the laboratory and evidence recovered and processed at crime scenes," according to the DEA's announcement in the Commerce Business Daily.

Manual fingerprint matching, often done through mailed correspondence with state and local governments, can take months or years. As a result, a DEA agent who has lifted fingerprints at a drug crime scene may have to wait months for matches, which are used to create a list of suspects. By then, the suspects may have left the country. Matching fingerprints "sometimes can take years...with the thousands, millions, of fingerprints that are on file," said Tod Burke, associate professor of criminal justice at Virginia's Radford University and a former policeman. With electronic matching, "now it can be done in a matter of minutes," he said.

Remote access to AFIS databases has the potential of coming up with a fingerprint match in less than two hours, Nitzsche-Ruggles said. A quick fingerprint match also can help authorities make sure they have not arrested the wrong person. "Sometimes when we talk about technology, it's not always catching the bad guy; it's releasing the good people...exonerating the innocent," Burke said.

The workstations that connect to state and local AFIS databases typically include standard computer parts -- a monitor, a processor and a keyboard -- as well as an image processor and a scanner that capture fingerprints in digital form so that they can be compared with digital fingerprints already in databases.

Once the fingerprints are in digital form and the workstation has dialed into an AFIS, the system uses complex software to match the fingerprint with several that have similar traits. A person then looks at the prints to determine if there is a match. "In the final analysis, it's a human that does the determination," Nitzsche-Ruggles said.

The DEA's current procurement for workstations will cover one year and four option years, said DEA contract specialist Connie Jones. The plan is to award contracts to the companies on a sole-source basis. Jones and the vendors declined to identify how many workstations the DEA might buy from the three vendors. Nitzsche-Ruggles said a North American Morpho Systems workstation can cost $90,000 to $200,000. James Menendez, manager of sales and marketing at NEC, said one of his company's workstations costs about $80,000.

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