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Fingerprints on file, right from the patrol car

By Thomas J. Fitzgerald
The New York Times

Biometrics, the science of using measurable physical characteristics to identify people, has added new weapons to the arsenals of law enforcement agencies, and as some of these new tools are connected to high-speed wireless communications they could become widely available to officers in the field, not just those back at headquarters.

Hand-held devices that can be used to digitally scan fingerprints and match the results against large databases are being tested by several law enforcement agencies nationwide, with officials at some saying that the benefits of biometrics are already clear.

The companies behind the products see uses that extend beyond local law enforcement activities, into such areas as homeland security and border control. They say the tools also have potential in the private sector, in banking and employee identification, for example, and that foreign governments have begun ordering them as well.

The Portland, Ore., police department has been testing a mobile fingerprint identification device since April. The unit, called IBIS and made by a Minnetonka, Minn., company called Identix, is slightly larger than an ordinary hand-held computer. It can scan fingerprints and then compare them with records kept by members of the Western Identification Network (, a consortium of law enforcement agencies in Western states with a database of more than 3.5 million fingerprint records.

If there is a match, the person’s name appears on the screen, usually within a few minutes and in many cases accompanied by a mug shot. Capt. Martin Rowley of the Portland police said the device was a major time saver: it can eliminate a trip to a downtown booking facility - 15 miles away from some districts - where it might take hours for the system to process a person. “That is the true bonus of the machine,” Captain Rowley said.

The Portland department has 10 IBIS units, paid for with $250,000 in federal grants for the initial phase of the project, officials said, and it plans to add another 17 by November. Over the long term, if additional financing is approved, Portland officials expect to have 280 for their own use and additional units for use by other law enforcement agencies in the region. Using the current IBIS system as a hub, those other agencies, which may include state and county police departments, airport security departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, could match fingerprints against the same database, said Sara Rosson, the identification technology coordinator for the Portland police.

The IBIS device is essentially a ruggedized Hewlett-Packard iPaq 3955 hand-held computer that has been modified by Identix. The company installs a fingerprint scanner and scanning software and adds cellular connectivity and communications software. The device creates digital images of fingerprints and wirelessly transfers them to an IBIS server, which is typically at an agency’s headquarters, and then on to law enforcement agencies where algorithms match prints against records in databases. If there is a match, demographic information about the person is transferred back to the device’s screen.

The devices cost $4,000 to $5,000 each, Identix officials said.

When they were introduced in Portland, concerns were raised about how they might be used, but police officials said the devices would be used only in circumstances in which existing laws had already allowed fingerprinting.

The department’s policy on fingerprinting has not changed, said Charlie Makinnie, the mayor’s liaison to the police. “They have always had a policy where you have to have probable cause or reasonable suspicion,” he said.

The IBIS unit is also being tested in Eagan, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb. There, too, the device raised public concerns, according to Kent Therkelsen, the Eagan police chief. He said the device was used only when the police already had legal authority to take prints. “It doesn’t change our laws, it doesn’t change our ethics,” Chief Therkelsen said. “It is just a tool for a very specific niche.”

Eagan police used the device recently when a shoplifter provided dubious identification. While the suspect was still in the store, officers determined her identity and learned that there were active warrants for her arrest.