Atlanta police get new mobile fingerprint scanners

The size of cell phone, RapID takes fingerprints for fast background check

By Rhonda Cook
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA - There’s a new tool in town for fighting crime.

RapID is a fingerprint scanner the size of a smart phone, and a crime-fighting tool so successful law-enforcement agencies now wonder how they ever worked in the field without it.

The MorphoRapID™ handheld biometric terminals allow police to quickly carry out ID checks in the field.
The MorphoRapID™ handheld biometric terminals allow police to quickly carry out ID checks in the field. (Image Courtesy of Safran Morpho)

The state received 120 of these devices, and distributed them to two dozen metro Atlanta law enforcement agencies, among them police in Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties, plus the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

"It's revolutionizing the way we do business," said Vernon Keenan, director of the GBI, which led the pilot project testing of what are known as mobile biometric fingerprint identification units.

A federal grant for $1.2 million recently was approved to add 57 agencies statewide to the program. The devices plus the necessary software cost from $2,000 to $2,800 each, according to the GBI.

"We would like to see every officer have one," said Sgt. John Neal of the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office.

The system searches for outstanding warrants, missing persons reports and protective orders. It also checks the Secret Service's protective, parole, probation and identity theft files, electronic records for sex offenders, immigration violators, foreign fugitives, and known and suspected terrorists.

The scanners also are used to confirm identities, but that works only if the person's fingerprints are in the state and national databases, which means he or she previously was charged with a crime.

"Many people will try to bluff the system and that's a mistake," Keenan said.

While some people might feel this is a further infringement on privacy, the Georgia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has received no complaints.

"Our only concern will be what they are doing with the fingerprints they are collecting," said Chara Fisher Jackson, Georgia ACLU legal director.

In North Carolina, the ACLU had concerns that RapID had helped create a government database of fingerprints for people who had not been charged with a crime. The scanners, however, do not capture and retain fingerprints; they only access databases that contain the fingerprints of those arrested.

People can refuse to place their two fingers on the screen of the scanner, and an officer can require fingerprints only if he or she has decided to make an arrest, the GBI said.

Law enforcement agencies in Cobb and Gwinnett counties used the scanners more than anyone else last year and had 70 percent of all fingerprint matches. Combined, the Cobb County Police Department and the Cobb County Sheriff's Office used the system almost 3,000 times during the six-month program, and made 2,070 hits. Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office and police and the Lawrenceville Police Department accounted for 2,700 hits out of almost 5,580 checks.

Region-wide, there were 6,887 hits out of 13,589 checks.

Most agencies use the RapID devices in the field, but the Gwinnett Sheriff's Office found the scanners helpful in checking out inmates entering jail. The scanners are time-savers because police officers don't have to readdress paperwork when it's discovered that an inmate has given a false name, Col. Donald Bartlett said.

Learn more about the RapID technology

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