KN, p. 71 “Whose fingerprint is that?”


I watched one of the CSI NY television episodes last Friday and was struck, yet again, by the Hollywood look of their crime labs. I like the show because of the actors and some of the cases, but as I’ve said before, TV sets and real life investigations bear little resemblance to each other – not in time, or equipment, or budgets. But, the viewing public expects the local police departments to have all that equipment readily available and is upset with the super long wait for results. It’s called the ‘CSI-effect’ and the guys and gals in real-life law enforcement have to deal with it all the time.


In the real world, investigators and examiners prove a case against the possible suspects using proper evidence collection techniques and tools, with hard work – not flash results in 50 minutes.


Fingerprint powders, brushes and magnifier


Fingerprints found at the scene are still the favored piece of evidence tying the suspect to the crime. These days, using a combination of ingenuity and newly developed chemicals and powders, a crime scene investigator can lift (and/or photograph) prints from many previously challenging surfaces.


After dusting for prints with black fingerprint powder,

they can be lifted from various smooth surfaces using (in forefront) a gel lifter, a hinge lifter and (in background) tape.

Prints are photographed and then can be viewed under an Optical Comparator. This machine can be hooked up to a laptop, and the image sent off to AFIS for ID.


Contrast image as seen on Optical Comparator



We hope for a complete print, but the usual occurrence is that most of the time, partial prints are left at the scene. That’s what makes the search for the suspects so much tougher than what the TV dramas tell us. There is no instant ‘a-ha’ moment that comes right after the crime has been committed. In a real lab, AFIS comes back with a list of 10-20 possible matches and someone then makes a comparison by hand of the most likely hits.


Some things to keep in mind:


*A print can disappear over time and there are too many variables (temperature, humidity, condition of the surface, etc.) to predict how long that will take.


*A really crisp print can be photographed right at the scene, using some great digital cameras now available.


*Forensic science is not a certainty, even though TV shows may give that impression.


*There is no nationwide standard for number of points of ID for a fingerprint. In the year 2013, the acceptable number of matching points (between the actual print and the print in the AFIS database) can range from 5 to 20 depending on where the suspect lives.


There is no such thing as a perfect crime, but the jails are filled with crooks that swear they have been framed. One of my favorite excuses: “Somebody planted that print.”




That only happens on TV and in the movies.



*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at the Sirchie Education and Training Center, Youngsville, NC.







KN, p. 51 “How big is that jail cell?”


Thinking of committing a crime?

Then let me show you where you’ll be living soon.

A life of crime is highly overrated by TV and the movies. Crooks do business in back alleys, abandoned buildings and isolated roads. Drugs are stored or processed in grungy apartments or warehouses. These days, there is no honor among thieves and some other gang is always trying to move in on your territory. You will be shot at, stabbed, or beaten if you don’t meet your boss’ quota or you happen to decide that he’s not giving you a big enough cut for taking all the risks. Your life is not your own, once you make a deal with scum.


And, if you think you can score big with a heist and live the life of luxury in a mansion somewhere…think again. If the cops don’t catch you right away, don’t worry…we will soon enough.


And, then your living arrangements will take a nosedive.


Let’s talk about privacy while you wait for trial behind bars. There is no privacy. None. And, the toilet is conveniently located right there with you in the see-through cell.


Then there’s the limited movement issue. Folks, look at the space. Some of the prisoners get to stay behind the bars for 23 hours a day, including meals. One hour in 24 outside the bars. Just sixty minutes, people.


Do you want the bedroom to be quiet and darkened at night, so that you can snooze? Not gonna happen. Ever. Plus, you might have to sleep on the floor if the jail is extra crowded that week. The big guy gets the cot.


I bet you like the smell of gun oil or aftershave or a steak cooking on the grill. Well, get used to the stink of open toilets, puke, and old sweat instead.


Think I’m exaggerating? Try a couple of nights in county and report back. If you’re smart, you’ll think again and settle for a job flipping burgers rather than selling drugs on the corner or becoming a convenience store robber. At least you get to go home at night.



*Photograph by Patti Phillips








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