Accessibility links

Breaking News

FBI Center Tracks Millions of Fingerprints - 2002-03-29

The head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation may be in Washington, DC but the nerve center of the operation is in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The FBI Criminal Justice Center serves as the national repository for America's fingerprint records.

The FBI Criminal Justice Center moved to the West Virginia countryside in the north central part of the state a little over five years ago. It is of course surrounded by security checkpoints complete with barbed wire fences and guards. But inside are hectares of grassy fields, rolling hills and dense woods. It is a deceivingly tranquil location, when one considers that hunts for some of the world's most dangerous criminals are going on inside the main building on the property. Michael Kirkpatrick, who is in charge of the Center, said the secluded location is perfect for the FBI.

"In today's electronic world, the work we do can be done just as easily from West Virginia as it can be done in Washington, DC or the state of Washington. Part of what caused our move out here is that we needed to completely revitalize our work processes," Mr. Kirkpatrick said.

The criminal justice center is at the cutting edge of technology. It offers law enforcement agencies all around the country access to the National Crime Computer a massive database of everything from traffic violations to arrest warrants, and it conducts the Instant Criminal Background Check required for anyone purchasing a firearm. But most of the center's electronic wizardry is focused on fingerprints.

While the FBI has done fingerprinting identification for years, it wasn't until 1999 that it launched a fully computerized system that agencies around the country can link in to. Charles Jones, one of the fingerprint instructors, says there's a certain satisfaction in work of this sort.

"Anybody can always lie about their name, date of birth and so forth, but you can never lie about your fingerprints," says Mr. Jones.

The pristine white lab where the prints are identified houses about 400 computers, all manned by fingerprint specialists. Fluorescent lights make it hard for the program's 1,100 employees to tell what time of day it is. However that doesn't matter because shifts run around the clock seven days a week. The lab can process a minimum of 43,000 prints a day.

As Mr. Jones walks down the endless rows of computers, he stops in front of the cubicle of a young man in wire frame glasses. The computer screen on his desk is split in half horizontally, with a set of 10 fingerprints displayed on the top and another set on the bottom.

"Andy here is a fingerprint examiner," explains Mr. Jones. "Basically his job is to evaluate and determine if the sets of prints sent to us by a contributing agency is identical to the fingerprints the computer has generated as a possible match."

The FBI has more than 42 million sets of prints on file. That number grows by approximately 7,000 a day. Most prints are those of criminals, sent in by police departments. However, as fingerprinting becomes more popular as a way to screen applicants for employment, the number of fingerprints from ordinary Americans in this database is growing too. Andy's computer doesn't specify which type of print he gets. Mr. Jones said that's not important because Andy's job is only to see if he can find a match.

"In most cases we have an answer back to you in two hours if it's a criminal card and 24 for a civil card," he says.

Identifying prints from computers is only a small part of what the Center's experts do. Assistant Director Michael Kirkpatrick points out that whenever there is a catastrophic event, such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11, his experts are called in to identify victims and perpetrators alike. When necessary they can make an I.D. with as little as a single print.

"Sometimes it's a very difficult job. At times working conditions are very harsh. You have to do the best you can with what's available. Our people keep in mind why they're there, to try to bring closure to the families and relatives of victims and they take it very seriously," Mr. Kirkpatrick says.

Since the September attacks the Fingerprint Center has also played an increased role in national security.

"We have become very involved in other government organizations such as the Department of State, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other agencies interested in homeland security," Mr. Kirkpatrick says.

While those are extremely important aspects of the lab's work, Charles Jones said he's most proud of some of the smaller successes. "We've had several cases since we implemented in '99 where a person was arrested on a relatively minor charge, but when we did a background check we had a record of this individual and he was wanted for a serious crime elsewhere," he says.

But above all, Mr. Jones likes knowing his agencies plays a small part in helping to create good families. Prospective parents must be fingerprinted before they may adopt a child, to ensure that they do not have a criminal background. So while the Center's workers have the large task of helping provide security for the country, they also provide security for some of its smallest citizens.