Pinellas' new crime-fighting tool makes matching fingerprints easier

CLEARWATER — Bill Schade remembers the days in the 1970s and '80s when fingerprints were enlarged on a white poster and displayed as evidence in courtrooms.

Fingerprint technology has come a long way since then, said Schade, fingerprint records manager at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The agency's new forensic comparator and examination station is a testament to that change.

"When you talk about the evolution in technology, I've seen a lot of changes," Schade said. "We can do so much more."

The new comparator, produced by the company FOCOS2, was installed at the Sheriff's Office latent-fingerprint section Aug. 1. Grants paid for the equipment, which cost about $30,000, Schade said.

On Monday, latent-fingerprint examiner Mara Iocolano displayed the new comparator, used to analyze fingerprints collected at crime scenes, and the equipment it replaced side by side.

The old comparator cost about $5,000 nearly a decade ago. Examiners had to place paper copies — one of the fingerprint collected at the scene, the other of the known fingerprint — under two lenses that showed the images side by side on a 13-inch TV.

If the examiners needed to make a note about a feature of the fingerprint, they jotted it down on the paper copy. They had to physically move the copies back and forth to show them on the screen.

"This is kind of clumsy," Iocolano said.

She displayed the same fingerprints on the new comparator, composed of two 8-megapixel cameras and a 24-inch touch-screen monitor. She placed each one under a camera. Once displayed on the screen, Iocolano scaled both images to the same size.

The comparator also includes a set of filters that can be placed on the camera lens to brighten and sharpen fingerprints, which are often dark and blurry. Image-editing software similar to Photoshop is also installed in the station. Examiners can rotate and zoom in on the images. They can crop samples and jot notes on the screen with a stylus.

"It makes things a lot easier when we're looking at this," Iocolano said. "We have a whole suite of tools that we can use."

The cameras can also swivel and rotate.

"If we have an actual piece of evidence — say they brought in the whole door and we just wanted something on the doorknob — we can pull that out, we can aim the camera directly on where we need it to be," she said.

Officials from FOCOS2 visited the Sheriff's Office for one day to show the seven latent-fingerprint examiners how to use the new tools.

The comparator is used daily, Iocolano said, to identify and eliminate potential suspects.

Schade hopes the new technology will lead to better evidence in court.

"When I produce results and I can document those properly, I have very solid evidence," he said. "Our job is to answer questions and match things up and provide investigative leads."

Laura C. Morel can be reached at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

Pinellas' new crime-fighting tool makes matching fingerprints easier 09/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 11:51am]

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