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Police in New York, Los Angeles, Miami Begin to Use Palm Prints

By Shaila K. Dewan

The New York Times -- For more than a century, the fingerprint has been a cornerstone of crime scene evidence. But fingerprints are only a tiny part of the story. All of a person’s “friction ridged skin” is distinctively patterned: soles, palms and even the so-called writer’s palm, which usually rests on the paper as one is writing.

Surveys of law enforcement agencies indicate that at least 30 percent of the prints lifted from crime scenes -- from knife hilts, gun grips, steering wheels and window panes -- are of palms, not fingers.

That is why in April, the New York Police Department began having prisoners place their whole hands, not just their fingertips, on the glass platens of the scanners when their prints are taken. Beginning next month, the department will be able to do computerized matches of the 100,000 palm prints it has already collected. Soon, it will be one of the largest databases of its kind, and it will continue to grow.

The cost of image storage and computerized matching equipment once limited database entries to fingertips. But technological advances have enabled a growing group of law enforcement agencies across the country -- about 30 so far, based on information provided by companies that sell the systems -- to build their own palm databases. The Los Angeles metropolitan area began using one last month. Miami, Palm Beach, Philadelphia and Indianapolis have all created databases this year. And Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, has its own database in the works.

There is as yet no national repository for palm prints, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently assessing three systems, including one by Sagem Morpho, the biometrics company based in Tacoma, Wash., that designed New York’s database and scanners.

Police departments have long taken palm prints with ink, either routinely or on a case-by-case basis. But computerized databases are expected to exponentially increase the number of matches, just as they did with fingerprints. Since 1999, when the FBI computerized its fingerprint database, its crime lab has found matches for about 1,200 crime scene prints -- more than five times the number found in 15 years of laborious manual matching, said Stephen Meagher, the head of the crime lab’s latent print operation.

Although statistics on palm data are hard to come by, the law enforcement agencies that have begun using palm databases have reported good results, said Steven Nash, the board chairman of the International Association for Identification, adding that many detectives have run prints from older cases. “They are getting hits on previously unknown and unused latent palm prints that are just lying around doing nothing,” he said.

With only 16,000 palms in its database so far, Indianapolis has come up with a match in 15 percent of its searches, according to statistics provided by Identix, the company that created the system. That is not as high as the 31-percent success rate in the city’s fingerprint database, which has more than 300,000 records.

As the number of palm records increases, agencies expect hit rates to rise dramatically. Investigators are hopeful that the palm technology will help solve more property crimes, many of which depend on fingerprints for resolution. Property crimes nationally are solved at a much lower rate than violent crimes -- 16.5 percent compared with 46.8 percent, according to FBI statistics.