Fingerprint device IDs suspects on the street

Sept. 29, 2008
BlueChecks portable fingerprint reader makes identity confirmation possible in the field

Fingering criminals has never been so easy for Los Angeles Police Department officers.

Thanks to a new fingerprint reader the size of a cell phone, police officers who think suspects are lying about their identities can quickly check who they are and whether they have warrants out for their arrests.

The new technology - called BlueChecks - could result in more arrests not only on warrants, but also on charges of giving false information to officers.

"I've never seen policemen be so happy about something, because it really works," said Lt. Anita McKeown, who handles BlueChecks for the Los Angeles Police Department. "It makes our job a lot easier; it's an instant lie-detector test."

In addition to the LAPD, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is among other law-enforcement agencies adopting BlueChecks.

The portable fingerprint reader uses Bluetooth technology to beam people's prints over the Internet and check them against a county database. A couple of minutes later, officers could get a detailed portrait of who's before them.

And with 1,000 more BlueChecks devices to be distributed by February, officers are excited.

"Everybody loves them. Everybody wants them," said sheriff's Lt. Leo Norton, who oversees the devices' distribution. "I couldn't keep them all on the shelf if I had them. They are an extremely popular and well-used tool."

When confronted with a shady character who has no ID and gives a potentially fake name, police used to have to ask a series of questions, hope to hear the truth, then let the person go. It's impossible to say how many times officers ran into wanted felons without even knowing it.

The fingerprint scanner is among the latest high-tech upgrades for crime-fighters.

Over the past few years, several LAPD patrol cars have been outfitted with license-plate scanners - cameras that "look" around and read nearby license plates to check whether any of the vehicles was stolen.

The first batch of 500 BlueChecks were first spread out among departments throughout the county about six months ago. The LAPD ended up with 200, gradually trickling onto the street as officers are trained to use them.

Officials are ordering 1,000 more that should arrive over the next five months, Norton said. The devices cost $750 apiece, and the county's Remote Access Network Board is using state funds to pick up the tab, he said.

But the system has its limits. As of now, police can only search a county database - meaning the device is useless if the unidentified person has been arrested and booked somewhere, but not in Los Angeles County.

But state agencies are discussing a long-term plan to create a comprehensive clearinghouse for fingerprints - similar to the state's DNA database - that would mostly eliminate the problem. But Norton said financial woes will probably delay that.

BlueChecks technology was developed by Pasadena-based Cogent Systems, which specializes in fingerprint identification. It brings a lot of money to the company but is not its bread and butter, said Cogent spokesman Chris Danne.

Cogent specializes in bulky, nonportable fingerprinting systems and massive computer servers, such as those used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

But the handheld device, he said, has attracted wide interest "from Spain to Los Angeles."

The fingerprint reader could be mistaken for a digital voice recorder or a cell phone. Suspects place their right thumbs on a sensitive square area on the device's face. The device scans the print and sends it, via Bluetooth signals, to a laptop computer installed in the officer's patrol car.

The satellite-connected computer beams the prints over the Internet to compare them with the county's collection. If the suspect has ever been booked in the county, the reader's screen blinks "HIT!!" and the suspect's real name, birth date and criminal history pop up.

No blink, and the cop is out of luck.

While the growing popularity of the devices has elated police, the American Civil Liberties Union watches with serious questions: What if this technology is used to collect and record fingerprints instead of just check them? Would the new technology encourage officers to embark on random, fingerprint-collecting expeditions?

"We very much feel strongly that fingerprints should not be collected under any situations other than those that the Penal Code authorizes, such as when people are arrested or cited," said Gordon Smith, a spokesman for the ACLU of Southern California.

The San Fernando Police Department, which patrols a city of less than 2 1/ 2 square miles that is surrounded by Los Angeles, has 14 of the units, and officers swear by them. They used them during several stops on a recent day, checking the identities of suspicious-looking characters wandering neighborhoods or making a scene in front of a liquor store.

Sgt. Alvaro Castellon, the first SFPD officer to use the device, remembers the first time the reader really came through for him:

He stopped a man who was in a car with his wife and a couple of kids in the back seat. The guy showed Castellon what appeared to be a valid driver's license and recited his birth date and other information for the officer.

But something was off.

"I had a gut feeling something was wrong," Castellon said.

He had the man press a finger onto the reader.

"I run his fingerprints and, boom, it came back as a totally different person," Castellon said. "I called him by his real name. Just the look on his face. ... It feels good.

"It actually feels good that the bad guy didn't win this time," he said.