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How to buy automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS)

By Tim Dees

Many law enforcement agencies, especially smaller ones with lower arrest volumes, continue to produce and retain tenprint cards in file cabinets. Many of these cards are eventually scanned into an AFIS, but the organizations that produced and maintain the files often have no direct access to that system. Here are three points to remember when considering an AFIS purchase:

1. Size
Only the largest organizations need to create and maintain their own AFIS system. The rest purchase scanners to collect fingerprint images, and possibly workstations to process latent prints for comparison to the fingerprint files in local or national databases. The most basic scanners can be had for around $1000, and some state criminal records repositories will assist with the purchase or furnish them outright. The cost savings realized by moving from paper to all-electronic records and processing quickly recovers the scanner cost.

Consideration should also be given to the number of existing paper records that will be converted for use in the digital database, how many new records will be added, and an estimate of how many and what type of searches will likely be conducted each day.

2. LiveScanning Capability
The process (and sometimes the equipment) used to record fingerprints from people is called LiveScan. Scanners with the capability of capturing four-finger “slap” prints and palm prints are about the size of a desk copier. Smaller machines with postage stamp-sized platens capture only one fingerprint at a time, and are around the size of two 50-round boxes of handgun ammunition.

Fingerprinting someone using LiveScan requires far less skill than with inked prints. The subject places the “pad” of each finger on the platen, and a computer display alongside shows the ridge detail. The operator pushes a button to capture the image, or some systems will sense when a good image is displayed and capture it automatically. When the display shows that all fingers have been scanned, the data is either sent to the image server or queued for later transmission to the state or national level.

3. Compatibility
The decision of what equipment to buy may be made for you. Many regional and state AFIS are optimized for specific hardware and software and will require you to use gear from their approved list. Any system you consider should be capable of producing files that are compliant with the latest NIST specifications. Ask potential vendors where their equipment is installed in your state or region, and check with those users for advice. Get very specific commitments on service and repair problems.

AFIS is a wonderful tool, but it is no substitute for a human fingerprint examiner. Whenever there is a question as to whether a fingerprint belongs to a specific person, the final call is made by a human. AFIS can narrow the field of possibilities, but total reliance on a machine for identification is a path to a bad arrest and a civil rights investigation.

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at

AFIX Technologies contributed to this How to Buy guide.

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