NIST helps eliminate human error in fingerprint analysis

Friday - 2/24/2012, 11:33am EST

Melissa Taylor, Law Enforcement Standards Office, National Institute of Standards and Technology

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Federal and local law enforcement agencies use fingerprints to find criminals. But crime scene researchers say problems with management and quality control, among other things, could lead to wrongful convictions and letting bad people get away.

Melissa Taylor works in the Law Enforcement Standards Office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Her agency worked with the Justice Department on recommendations for reducing human error in fingerprint analysis.

"There's always room for improvement, even when technology and human expertise is mature," Taylor told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin Friday.

The report urges management to foster a culture where errors can be discussed in order to gain an understanding of how human errors impacts forensics analysis.

"We also talk about the documentation of latent print examinations and making sure that examiners are detailing their level of work, so that other examiners can look at their work and assess their accuracy and validity and make sure, before reports go out the door, that they contain no errors, " Taylor said.

The report also addresses a concern familiar to many federal agencies — the lack of resources and the impact it may have on performance.

"Resources are very important," Taylor said. "Paying for appropriate staff to handle the workload is one concern. In management of crime, you can't really tell how much information you're going to pull from a crime scene. We want to make sure that when you pull that information that there are enough individuals to go through the evidence when it comes through the crime laboratory."

Another concern facing law enforcement agencies is the effect of fatigue on their employees.

"If you have people working a crime scene, say a murder happens at 2 a.m., and you've got crime scene folks out there in the middle of the morning," Tayor said. "Then they have to come in and have to do their regular 9-to-5 shift and have to do their work. It's important that you're allowing time for analysts to rest so that they can be at their peak when they're doing their job."

NIST is also coming up with strategies for managing fatigue and shift work to ensure optimal performance.