Everyone is an expert in “something,” so everyone has those moments of cringing when that something is depicted in a movie or TV show. It may come as no surprise, but popular entertainment rarely depicts life — or work — in the real world with any great accuracy.
“I hate it when they say, ‘There were no fingerprints on the gun,’” laughs Vivian Stafford, an adjunct professor at National University who has worked as a forensic expert at the federal level for 29 years. “The ATF did a study years ago and they only got fingerprints off 4% of guns they analyzed. It takes a lot for a fingerprint to be left on an item.”
A Brief History of Fingerprint Analysis
Forensic fingerprint analysis has loomed large as a cliché in cop dramas as long as there have been cop dramas. But fingerprint identification has been a part of real-world crime investigation since the 19th century.
Fingerprints were first proposed as a means of identifying people in the mid- to late-19th century. Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist whose resume accomplishments included discoveries in genetics, psychology, statistics, and the invention of meteorology, to name a few, established a science of fingerprint classification and figured out that no two people can have the same print.
“We had no method for identifying human beings prior to the advent of fingerprints, except for Alphonse Bertillon’s method of measuring bones, called anthropometry, but that proved to be a disaster,” explains Stafford. Without a reliable method of identifying people, she continues, “People were feigning death to collect on insurance. Criminals would change their appearance — grow their hair or grow a beard — and change their name and go on committing crimes in other jurisdictions. So fingerprint identification was a huge advance.”
By the 1920s in the U.S., says Stafford, the FBI had millions of fingerprints stored on cards organized according to the Henry Classification Method, which was introduced in the 1880s by the Scottish physician Henry Faulds, another pioneer of fingerprint analysis. The system reduced the amount of haystack around the needle by storing prints first according to their macro features, and then by subcategories based on subtler features.
Even so, says Stafford, in the early days of fingerprint identification, a search that began with a few million prints might only be narrowed down to about 300,000 cards — and each of those would have to be examined by human eyes.
Arches, Loops, and Whorls: The Architecture of Fingerprint Identification
How in the world does fingerprint identification work? Everyone knows what a fingerprint basically looks like, but being able to spot the unique features of any given print can seem mysterious. How can anyone begin to make sense of what looks like a blob made up of tiny squiggles?
In the science of fingerprint analysis, those tiny squiggles are called friction ridges. “Biologically, the reason we have raised ridges is for gripping,” Stafford explains. “They’re for creating friction so we can pick things up.” Galton’s research established fingerprint categories based on the presence of arches (wavy lines ), loops (hairpin curves ), and whorls (ellipses or spirals). These are the macro features used by Henry Faulds to separate prints in the initial sort.
Next, the finer details are examined. As Stafford describes it, “Everybody’s got ridges that divide and ridges that come to an end, but each person has unique placement, characteristics, and positions. Even if you just took the tip of your index finger, in that one little area, no one else on earth can have that same small area with the same positions and relationships of the fingerprint ridges.”
The part of the TV shows where crime scene investigators use powder to reveal fingerprints does happen in real life. “If you go to a crime scene, and let’s just say you determine the point of entry is the door. You use fingerprint powder and you put a small amount on a fingerprint brush and go in a circular motion until a fingerprint appears,” says Stafford. “Once it appears you have to make a decision on how to preserve it. You can use tape to lift it and apply it to a card, and you can photograph it. Preferably you photograph it before you lift it because lifting it doesn’t always work. The latent fingerprint lift cards are properly initialed, dated, packaged and sealed before being entered onto a chain of custody document and submitted to the evidence facility.”
The prints photographed and possibly lifted at the scene are called latent fingerprints. At the lab, they are compared with prints, interchangeably referred to as known fingerprints or exemplars, from a suspect list. If there are no suspects, the latent prints are compared with a database. This is the part where old-time crime detectives had to sit down with a few hundred thousand cards. Since the early 1980s, at least part of the process has been delegated to computer software, and that’s where the TV shows veer back off the rails.
“On television, you’ll see the computer doing a comparison and you’ll look at a monitor and there are two prints and all of a sudden the computer says, ‘Match, match, match!’ That doesn’t happen in real life.” Stafford explains that “the computer is making little triangulations with an algorithm and then giving you a candidate list. The fingerprint computer never, ever makes an identification. It makes a candidate list. You could ask it to give you the 10 closest or the 20 closest. But in the end, a human being has to check them.” In addition, she adds, “We never use the word match.”
One Little Piece of a Big Puzzle
Forensic fingerprint analysis is just one element of crime scene investigation. A crime is not solved and a culprit prosecuted because of fingerprint identification alone, but fingerprint analysis, for all its pop culture mystique, can be an important piece of the crime scene evidence.
Stafford’s own career has spanned the gamut of crime scene investigative disciplines. It began with a position as a fingerprint specialist for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). After 13 years she transferred to a fingerprint specialist position with the Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the criminal investigative service for Navy bases which do not fall under the law enforcement jurisdictions of the counties or states in which they’re located. At the NCIS, Stafford gained expertise in a spectrum of forensic tools and techniques less well known to the public than fingerprint identification. Her specialties included footwear impression identification, which is similar to fingerprint identification in that it creates an impression of marks at crime scenes and then compares them with known footwear samples from suspects, and serial number restoration, which is restoring the visibility of serial numbers on weapons that have had their serial numbers destroyed in an effort to make them untraceable. She continually expanded her own knowledge base by taking training offered by her agency and by attending classes and workshops at conferences.
In 2006, NCIS promoted her to the elite position of forensic consultant — one of only about six working for the Navy worldwide at the time — but asked that she obtain a master’s degree in forensic science. National University offered the perfect method of fulfilling the request. Because National’s programs are structured with the working professional in mind, Stafford was able to get her master’s degree while maintaining her enormous responsibility as the Navy’s “go-to person for any forensic question.” The Navy’s CSI teams would call her on the way to crime scenes and she would exercise her cross-discipline proficiency in guiding the team. She would advise on what evidence to look for, how to get it to the labs safely, and how to close up the scene.
The number of professionals involved in crime scene investigations, and the number of roles each professional fills, depends on the size of the agency involved. Crime scene investigative units exist on the city, county, state, and federal level and teams can range anywhere from two to nearly 300 employees. Agencies with the largest teams employ hyper-focused specialists, who may have in-depth knowledge of their own area of expertise but little idea of other types of evidence analysis.
Stafford says it’s common for forensic examiners to do both fingerprint analysis and footwear comparisons. Among the many other types of forensic specialists are:
- DNA examiners: examine bodily fluids collected at crime scenes.
- Trace evidence examiners: look at fibers and other materials left in trace amounts on or near victims.
- Ballistics experts: draw conclusions about the kinds of weapons used and at what distance.
- Bloodstain pattern analysts: infer details from blood samples and stains.
- Toxicologists: examine body tissues for chemicals.
These are only a few areas people interested in solving crimes can specialize in when pursuing a career in the forensic sciences.
Steps to a Career in Forensic Fingerprint Analysis
Most agencies require a bachelor’s degree for forensic examiner jobs but they vary on whether it needs to be in a specific area. Crime scene investigation and its associated laboratory specializations are rapidly growing fields, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but even though the number of jobs is expanding, the overall number is still relatively small compared with the number of people interested in the field. For this reason, it pays for candidates to differentiate themselves with exceptional educational foundations.
Degrees specific to forensic science are available at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s level. Students pursuing careers in the forensic laboratory benefit substantially from having a grounding in sciences such as biology, chemistry, and anatomy before beginning their forensic science coursework. For students wanting to work in the field collecting evidence at crime scenes, coursework in criminal justice is ideal but usually not required.
Online degrees provide an opportunity for candidates to add a college degree to their credentials while still working. In addition to helping job seekers get a foot in a forensic agency’s door, an online degree can help professionals already working in the field diversify into other specialties and advance their careers through promotions.
Another effective way to become more competitive in forensic science fields is to obtain professional certification. While certification is not mandatory for any of the forensic science fields, voluntary certifications are offered by a number of professional organizations and they are effective ways of demonstrating your credibility.
Certification in forensic fingerprint analysis and several other specialties is available through the International Association of Identification (IAI).
Once employed, forensic science professionals continue to learn from experience, and may, like Stafford, branch out into numerous disciplines. No matter which specialty you’re in, forensic science tools and techniques evolve rapidly, so continuous learning is essential. Some agencies provide ongoing training, and there are numerous conferences where forensic professionals gather, network, and take classes and workshops. These include American Academy of Forensic Science conferences, the ICSIA’s annual conference, the IAI’s annual conference, and the International Conference on Forensic Research and Technology.
Fingerprint identification experts are part of a field that is growing much faster than the average occupation in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and median pay nationwide for forensic professionals is $58,230. Measured as a percentage of all jobs, California employs the most forensic professionals, with the highest numbers in the Los Angeles area. The San Francisco Bay area offers the nation’s highest pay for forensic science occupations.
It’s always a good idea to research your occupation of interest within the geographic area you want to reside. Fingerprint identification experts go by a number of different titles across various agencies, so be sure to enter different terms when searching job posts. Job titles include fingerprint analyst, fingerprint technician, latent fingerprint examiner, latent print examiner, and identification specialist, among others.
National’s Offerings in Fingerprint Analysis
If you see your future self in a job doing fingerprint analysis, National University can help you get there. There are a few online colleges in San Diego and the surrounding area that offer degrees in forensic science but the only one of these offering a forensic science master’s degree is National University.
National also offers a graduate certificate in forensic and crime scene investigations, which provides a solid grounding for entering the field; its credits can also be transferred to the master’s degree if and when further education is desired.
Both the graduate certificate and the master’s degree dedicate a full class, twice per year, to fingerprint analysis, ensuring that students who complete either degree have a firm grasp of this essential forensic process.
In addition, both programs are offered either in person or as online classes that allow working professionals to set their own study schedules and fit their degrees into their lives.
Visit the program page to learn more about the graduate certificate in forensic and crime scene investigations or to request information about any of our forensic sciences offerings.