NOTE: This was updated in August, 2019 to reflect new information. 🙂
Part 2 – information about Evidence Collection Training Classes held at SIRCHIE.
Click here for Part 1 – PW: “Have you been fingerprinted?”
During the first two days of Evidence Collection Training, we used a number of chemicals, fingerprint powders, and brushes, and employed several different fingerprint lifting techniques on a variety of tricky surfaces. We discussed the benefits of both cheap and costly Alternate Light Sources.
Our notebooks were filling up and theories of the perfect crime were flying around the class. We kept quizzing Robert Skiff, our instructor, (Sirchie Training Manager/Technical Training Specialist) about ways to ‘get away with the murder of the decade.’ But, as we learned, there is no perfect crime. That pesky trace evidence will always be waiting at every scene for the investigator to discover it, photograph it, tag it, bag it, and transport it without losing the integrity of the sample.
It was time to visit the plant – see how the powders, brushes, and other crime scene paraphernalia were made.
Sirchie manufactures most of its products in-house. The specialized vehicles for SWAT, bomb rescue, arson investigation, and surveillance work, etc., will now be built in North Carolina, along with the smaller products.
Security was carefully controlled throughout our tour. Most of our group writes crime fiction, so we are always looking for a way our fictional criminals can break in (or out of) a wild assortment of locations. As we walked through the stacks and aisles of products, we commented to each other on the smooth organization and many checks Sirchie had in place. Cameras everywhere. Limited access to the assembly floor. Labyrinths a person could easily get turned around in. If we got separated from the group while taking an extra photo or two, we were found and escorted back by an always friendly employee.
Of course, we couldn’t turn into rogue students anyway. Our fingerprints littered the classroom and they knew where we lived.
Security plays a part in the assembly model as well. Each product they create is put together from start to finish by hand. There are no assembly lines because of trade secrets and a dedication to preserving product integrity. Personnel are carefully screened before being hired and qualification for employment includes graduate degrees. No criminal history whatsoever is allowed. Every employee comes through the Evidence Collection Training Class so that they understand what Sirchie does as a whole.
Templates for the various products are created in-house. The operators of these machines are highly trained experts. Quality control is paramount, so training is constant.
All the printing is done in-house. The printing area was stacked with cases of items being packaged for shipment. We saw strips large enough to process tire treads.
Field Kits are created for general use by investigators, but can be specifically designed for a special need. The small vials contain enough chemicals to test unknown stains and substances at the scene. Note the dense foam holding the vials and bottles firmly in place. The kits are usually kept in the trunk and probably get tossed around quite a bit. The foam insures against breakage during car chases and while bumping across uneven road surfaces.
There are fiberglass brushes, feather dusters for the very light powder, regular stiffer brushes, and magnetic powder brush applicators.
We were lucky enough to see fiberglass brushes being made.
If a handgun is seized for evidence, there needs to be a simple, yet effective way to track chain of possession.
*Bag the gun to preserve the fingerprints and
*drop the gun in the box.
*Then fill in the blanks on the box.
*Easy to stack and store until needed.
Think of all the cases that may be ongoing in a large jurisdiction – the evidence is not sitting at the police station. It’s in a warehouse someplace, and needs to be easily identified when required for court. In addition to several sized boxes for guns and knives, etc. Sirchie also provides an incredible assortment of resealable plastic bags for preserving evidence like clothing, unidentified fibers, etc.
Magnetic powder was being processed that day and then put into rows and rows of jars and jugs. Before it is sent out to the customers, each lot is tested for moisture content, appropriate ratio of ingredients and other trade secret tests. We joked about taking some back to class for the next round of fingerprint study and were surprised by how heavy the jugs were.
No, she’s not making bullets. She is assembling the cyanowand cartridges used for fuming with superglue.
SIRCHIE makes riot gear.
This is not a photo of something from a SyFy movie. At the center of the shot is a helmet template. The drills encircling the template are aimed at spots where holes are needed for each helmet, depending on the type of helmet in production. All the holes are drilled at the same time.
The Optical Comparator, as well as the other machines, is built to order by hand.
While in the warehouse, we learned that if a product is discontinued, it is still supported by Sirchie. That means that if a law enforcement officer calls up with a problem a few years after purchasing a machine, he can still get help. Reassuring for jurisdictions with a tight budget that can’t afford to replace expensive equipment every year or two.
Sirchie sends supplies to TV shows, so next time you’re watching a fave detective or examiner lift prints with a hinge lifter, it may have come from Sirchie.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at the Sirchie Education and Training Center in Youngsville, North Carolina.
August, 2019 note: I had occasion to return to SIRCHIE during MurderCon, a Writers’ Police Academy event. While the instructors were different, it’s reassuring to note that the science remains the same. Read on for details about gathering fingerprints from paper.
People ask me all the time how I acquire the information needed to write Kerrian’s Notebook.
Simple answer: research. And lots of it.
If the questioners want to know more, I mention the conferences I attend, the reference books I read, the internet sources I’ve tapped into, and the experts willing to chat about their chosen fields. It’s a fascinating part of the job and I love it.
The next few posts will reveal some of the information gathered at a series of classes where I took photos and lots of notes. If you’re a regular follower of Kerrian’s Notebook, you may recognize some of the details mentioned here as having appeared on previous Detective Kerrian’s pages.
For all out fun, I go to the Writers’ Police Academy held in September – this was the 5th year at the Guilford County, NC location (my fourth). It’s a three-day, mind-blowing experience that demonstrates the nuts and bolts of police and fire and EMS procedure – taught by professionals and experts actively working in the field.
Along with several other strands of study, the 2011 WPA conference provided classes in bloodstain patterns, fingerprinting, and alternate light sources (ALS) conducted by Sirchie instructors. Because of the standing room only enthusiasm for these classes, Sirchie offered a five-day Evidence Collection training session for writers at their own complex in North Carolina. Sirchie makes hundreds of products for the law enforcement community and I felt this would be a great opportunity for Detective Kerrian to learn more about the latest and best gadgets being used to catch the crooks.
I happily sent in my application and plunked down my credit card to hold my space in the class – ten months ahead of time.
On the first day of classes, our instructor, Robert Skiff (Training Manager/Technical Training Specialist at Sirchie) discussed the ‘CSI Effect’ – the pressure placed by the popular TV shows on real life crime investigation. TV labs and real life investigations bear little resemblance to each other – not in time, or equipment, or budgets. Then we got to work, using the powders and brushes needed to process a crime scene and used by actual techs in the lab.
It’s up to investigators and examiners to prove the case against the suspects, using proper evidence collection techniques and tools, because trace evidence is ALWAYS left behind.
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.
By the way, black fingerprint powder gets all over everything when newbies are handling it for the first time. We must have used 50 wet wipes each during the morning alone.
After dusting prints with black fingerprint powder,
they were lifted from various smooth surfaces using (in forefront) a gel lifter, a hinge lifter and (in background) tape.
Our prints were photographed and then viewed under an Optical Comparator. This machine can be hooked up to a laptop, and the image sent off to AFIS for identification purposes. No crooks in our crowd, so we omitted that step.
Did I mention that we had loads of fun?
On the second day, Robert Skiff’s assistant for the class, Chrissy Hunter, passed out stainless steel rectangles and we pressed our fingers onto the plates, twice. First time – plain ole print, second time – ‘enhanced’ by first rubbing our fingers on our necks and foreheads to increase the amount of oils in the print. The ridge detail in the prints was so clear in the ‘enhanced’ version that there was no need to process them with powder. We lifted them with a gel lift.
If we were working a real scene, that might never happen, but it could. The usual occurrence is that partial prints are left at the scene and that’s what makes the search for the suspects so much tougher than what the TV dramas indicate. There is no instant ‘a-ha’ moment that comes 45 minutes after the crime has been committed.
The prints are generally sent off to be compared with the millions in the AFIS database, and here’s where TV parts with reality again. AFIS comes back with a list of 10-20 possible matches and someone then makes a comparison by hand of the most likely hits.
After practicing the basics, it was time to move on to fingerprint discovery on documents. There are scheming relatives who forge wills, less than loving spouses who murder for the insurance, bogus suicide notes, and the list goes on. How to prove the nefarious intent? Fingerprints. But…as we discovered the first day, fingerprint powder is messy and almost impossible to clean up. An important document could be destroyed in the search for evidence of foul play. Enter chemicals and alternate light sources (ALS).
If used in this order, the sample won’t be compromised, even though treated several times over several days. We experimented with several chemicals with excellent results, but for the ‘wow’ factor, I’m showing the ones that look great on camera. 😉
DFO reacts to amino acids in the prints. We created our samples placing our own enhanced prints on plain white paper. We hung the papers in the fume hood, saturated them with DFO, then put them in the oven to bake for several minutes.
Alternate Light Sources vary depending on the scene lighting and/or need to highlight the evidence. A few used in the field are: the ‘poor man’s ultimate light source’ (a mag light), black lights, UVC lights, lasers, LED lights, Ruvis lights (cost about $20K), and pure white lights. Each has a specific quality that the investigators can tap when needed.
After we sprayed our samples with DFO and baked them in the oven, we darkened the room, and put on orange plastic glasses. Then we side-lit the sample with a 455nm light. The photo was taken at that point.
Same sample, side-lit at a slightly different angle. Photo taken through an orange filter.
Before working with any chemical, it’s a good idea to make copies of the document. Why are there different kinds of Ninhydrin? Zylene will run some inks. Acetone will run all inks, all the time. Ooops! There goes the document if you grab the wrong chemical, so copies are definitely necessary. Noveck is the clear winner when working with inks. It gets fast results and dries quickly. Additionally, it can be sprayed on an outer envelope to reveal what’s inside. Without damaging either piece of paper. Very cool.
You could see the plots developing in our writerly minds as the Noveck dried and the words inside the folder faded from view.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at the Sirchie Education and Training Center in Youngsville, North Carolina.
Continuing the series of articles about Evidence Collection Training Classes held at SIRCHIE.
Part 4 – “Quick! Grab the glue gun!”
We often hear it said on TV and in the movies that there are items and surfaces that do not hold fingerprints or that fingerprints cannot be recovered from them. On Day #4 of the Sirchie Evidence Collection Training Classes held at the Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratories in NC, we experimented with a variety of surfaces to see what would happen if…
Skin is reported to be one of the most difficult surfaces from which to lift a print, because the prints fade so quickly. But, after three days of dusting and chemically treating and lifting and photographing dubious fingerprints, our group of dogged writer/investigators was not to be deterred.
The set of prints in the photograph below were lifted from an arm. Not clothing, the arm itself. And not by using fingerprint powder on the arm. A classmate kindly offered up her arm to be grabbed. Then a piece of specially treated paper (chromicoat) was pressed onto the area of her arm where the fingerprints were likely to be found. That paper was then dusted with fingerprint powder and the prints popped up. We now knew it was possible to lift the prints if they were minutes old, but we had access to both the specially treated paper and the powder immediately after the grab. We also knew from experience that our grabber always left really good prints on all the surfaces touched during the previous days.
We proposed various scenarios to our instructor (equally curious Robert Skiff, Sirchie Training Manager/Technical Training Specialist). What if a mugger grabbed a bare arm and tried to drag us into an alley? How close would we have to be to the police station after we got away from the mugger in order to get the prints processed? How much time did we have before they faded away? Would the lift work if we used plain paper, since it was highly unlikely that an ordinary gal would be carrying chromicoat paper in a pocket? What if the police station wasn’t close by, therefore no access to fingerprint powder?
The answers were time sensitive. It was possible to lift prints from a bare arm with plain paper, but only if the lift was made during the first few minutes and only if the suspect left a strong sample. It’s possible to use cigarette ashes as a substitute for the fingerprint powder. Conclusions? There were too many variables for this to be a reliable way to catch a crook. Now…if you were grabbed around the corner from a police station OR were a smoker AND the mugger had dirty hands AND you had a clean piece of paper in your pocket AND you had attended this class… Hmmm…maybe in a sci-fi mystery. However, not completely impossible.
Another difficult surface from which to lift prints is the dashboard of a car. Think about it. If you press your hand onto a dashboard, your skin (with all the loops and whorls and arches) is also pressing into the crevices of the pebbled surface. Same thing is true for an orange or a football. A straight gel lift or hinge lifter will not do the job effectively. A tape lift may only pick up the top of the print.
But, the investigator sees the possible print and doesn’t want to lose the opportunity to catch the crook. The answer in the past was to dust the likely area with magnetic fingerprint powder, then apply a Blue Glue gel and wait for the gel to cure before lifting it off the dash – about five hours. FIVE hours? The crook is getting away! No time to wait!
These days, the preferred lifting product (after applying the magnetic powder to enhance the print) is a transparent liquid silicone (PVS200 – polyvinyl siloxane), applied with an extruder gun. It flows down into the crevices, dries in six minutes, and gets into every bit of the print. After the polyvinyl dries, it can be lifted, and then placed on a backing card to preserve the print. At that point, it can be placed under an Optical Comparator, photographed, and sent off to AFIS for an ID/comparison.
This epoxy is not good for every surface (it rips paper, etc) but is very good for pitted, bumpy surfaces like alligator skin and dashboards. Gotcha!
Another tricky scenario: The cop is in pursuit of an unidentified car thief or robber and chases him through a parking lot. The cop witnesses the suspect firmly planting his palm on the trunk of a car as he cuts through a tight space. The cop grins as he realizes that even if the guy outruns him, he can catch him through the palm print. And, then, it starts to pour. Does the print get washed away? Or become unusable?
Not if the Field Kit is handy! When forced to do a wet lift, it is possible to use SPR (Small Particle Reagent – finely ground particles suspended in a detergent solution). Spray the print with a fine mist of SPR and let set. Lay the hinge lifter just off the print and place it down carefully, employing a squeegee at the same time, to slowly remove the excess water. This method can be used to develop prints on non-porous surfaces – cans, bottles, windows, and other glossy surfaces, but not on paper or cardboard.
Criminals who tie their victims up during the commission of a crime frequently use duct tape for the job. That duct tape is almost always full of prints that get embedded into the tape. It’s practically impossible to manipulate and tear the tape while wearing gloves (I tried this once and the gloves got so stuck to the tape that I threw the resulting mess away), so he leaves prints while unrolling and tearing the tape. Even if he has wiped the smooth surface of the tape clean to cover his identity, the sticky side can’t be wiped without taking away the sticky. Balls of tape tossed aside by a suspect have been processed successfully for prints, but first the tape had to be released from itself.
A 2% chloroform tape release agent is dropped liberally on the area where the two pieces of tape meet. Two people need to work together on this – one person places the drops continuously while the other person pulls the tape apart. The ends of the tape are folded over (about ¼”) and the tape is flattened for 24 hours before further processing.
After 24 hours, adhesive-side developer is applied to the sticky side of the duct tape, allowed to sit for a few minutes, then rinsed off and voila! The prints are clearly visible, can be photographed, covered with clear tape to protect them, viewed under the Optical Comparator, entered into the system, and sent off to AFIS. (Crystal Violet can also be used for processing this type of print, but is toxic and should only be used in a lab.)
AFIS – what is it and does it really help identify a person of interest in a crime?
Anyone who has watched TV crime shows during the last decade has heard the acronym AFIS. It stands for Automated Fingerprint Identification System. In 1924, the FBI started a fingerprint identification system. They fingerprinted several thousand prisoners incarcerated at Leavenworth, and stored their prints on cards.
As of 2012, the system had broadened to include international prints as well, is an electronic database of 70 million, and contains the prints of both law-abiding citizens as well as those of criminals. While newborn babies are printed, their information is usually entered into a local system unless needed in an abduction case. Real estate agents, childcare workers, Federal employees, and people seeking employment with security and law enforcement agencies are fingerprinted as a matter of course now. Depending on the State, the prints are entered into the State AFIS system, and held until needed in the national system. The fingerprints of any person arrested for any level of crime are sent to the State and then on to the national FBI database. The latest FBI version is named IAFIS (I is for Integrated).
Johnny Leonard, a latent fingerprint expert, visited the class in the afternoon to explain what AFIS can and can’t do. He showed us what a fingerprint examiner looks for in every print or partial print he/she sees, using the Henry Fingerprint Classification and Identification method. The average number of minutiae on every complete print is between 100 and 150. There are distinct ridge patterns to look for in a print: arches, loops and whorls.
65% of all fingerprint patterns are loops,
30% are whorls,
and only 5% of fingerprint patterns are arches.
Thumb prints are the prints most often left at a crime scene, because people use their thumbs for leverage when pushing through doors or opening safes, or grabbing those golf clubs to use as weapons, etc.
Identifying 8-12 points of similarity between an unknown latent print found at a crime scene and one in the AFIS database is the standard for declaring a match, but some jurisdictions want more for absolute certainty. An examiner plots the print in question for distinct characteristics, makes notes to that effect before sending the print off and waits. AFIS & IAFIS return a list (sometimes as many as 30) of possible matches. At this point, the examiner reviews the possibles and chooses the best match in his/her opinion. And, it might not be the first on the list. Then, another examiner verifies the possible match. There is no such thing as an instantaneous match with just one print from the AFIS or IAFIS databases. TV tells us otherwise, but sorry, that’s merely for dramatic effect.
Other interesting fingerprint details:
*We know that no two people can have the same fingerprints, but not even the same person’s prints are identical.
*Some people have all three types of ridge patterns on one finger.
*Only positive matches from the state AFIS are verified by examiners; not the negative ones.
*Palm prints are now in the AFIS database.
*AFIS looks for change of direction in the whorls, loops, and arches in order to find a match.
*There has not been a case yet where the DNA has not matched the fingerprints at the scene.
The photo below shows a positive match between a latent print and one in the database. The latent is on the left. The database print is on the right. This match placed the suspect at the scene and along with other evidence, resulted in a conviction.
Having been through four days of training, working with prints on a variety of surfaces, we felt confident that we were up to the challenge of matching a few fingerprints on our own. Mr. Leonard showed us 16 pairs of prints and gave us 15 minutes to make decisions. We looked for cluster highlights, tented arches, spots, bifurcations and other techy details. Guess what? The lines began to blur, and not all of us correctly identified all the matches.
TV makes it look easy, with a click and a less than five-minute response time from IAFIS. Not possible, with 70 million fingerprints to choose from. This is not an easy job, even with the new digital readers that speed up the process of finding likely matches at the scene.
Click here for Part 1 – “Have you been fingerprinted?”
Click here for Part 2 – “Where are the Evidence Collection kits made?”
Click here for Part 3 – “Can’t get rid of the blood?”
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at SIRCHIE Education Training Center in Youngsville, NC.