Many Pa. police departments fall short in fingerprinting

Posted: May 19, 2014

The numbers surprised Jack Laufer, the Coatesville police chief: Over six months, state police records showed, his department had secured fingerprints in only about a quarter of all arrests.

"It seems like we process every single person that comes in here," Laufer said. Then he delved into the records for the last half of 2012 and discovered a recording glitch that he fixed. In the next six-month period, the first half of 2013, the department's fingerprint numbers, as tracked by the state police database, improved, but only to about 34 percent compliance.

Coatesville's low compliance numbers point up a larger issue, officials acknowledge.

Across the state, fingerprints are not recorded for about 15 to 20 percent of those arrested on criminal charges. They include defendants in homicides, child rape, aggravated assaults, weapons violations, driving under the influence, and retail thefts, records show.

Compliance rates vary. Philadelphia, with a centralized booking system, has nearly 100 percent compliance. For Jan. 1 to June 30, 2013, the average rates were 77 percent for Chester County police departments, 79 percent for Delaware County, 77 percent for Bucks, and 88 percent for Montgomery.

State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery) said he first learned of what he called a "major public safety issue" during a judiciary committee hearing on background checks.

"Our entire criminal justice system is based on fingerprints as a chief identifier," Stephens said. That would include screenings for people buying guns, working with children, and seeking other employment. "If that initial step doesn't happen, our background check falls apart."

If subjects are charged with serious crimes but never fingerprinted and move out of the state, fingerprint records would not follow them. Background checks might thus fail to reveal criminal pasts, Stephens said.

Inconsistent fingerprint records also raise concerns for the judicial system, said Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.

"One of the factors we take into account is the criminal history of the defendant," he said, adding that absent a fingerprint, a court record would not be part of the defendant's criminal history.

"If that piece of data is not being collected, a lot of our other systems fail," Bergstrom said.

A defendant can be fingerprinted at the time of arrest or later, depending on the type of crime with which he or she is charged and whether a defendant is intoxicated, belligerent, or hospitalized.

A judge can issue an order at a preliminary hearing that the defendant be fingerprinted, but if that order is not executed, the prints will not be taken.

In the police departments that routinely have high compliance rates, a culture that ensures attention to detail and backup steps is in place.

Noncompliance "is a pet peeve of mine," said Chief Daniel Ruggieri of the Aston Township Police Department in Delaware County. Ruggieri said he reviews all criminal cases that come through his 28-person department.

To assist with compliance, the Pennsylvania State Police launched a public online website in January that details fingerprint rates by municipality and department.

The "Community Dashboard" is the culmination of a decade of work with various state agencies to try to resolve the fingerprint issue, said Lt. Kevin Deskiewicz, director of criminal records. The site has data for the first half of 2013. The goal is to post numbers quarterly, he said.

State officials have planned training sessions directed toward officers on the street, he said.

"It is just not making an arrest, it is the fingerprints that track the case through the court system," Deskiewicz said.

Coatesville's 27-person department was "taken aback" by the poor fingerprint performance, Laufer said, and its low numbers constituted a "wake-up call."

"It ultimately comes down to the arresting officers' responsibility to make sure everyone is fingerprinted," Laufer said. "We are holding our guys accountable, and our percentage will be way up there from now on."


BY THE NUMBERS

77%

Average rate of fingerprinting compliance for Chester County for first half of last year.

79%

average rate of compliance for Delaware County.

77%

Average rate of compliance for Bucks County.

88%

Average rate of compliance for Montgomery County.


mschaefer@phillynews.com

610-313-8111

@MariSchaefer

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|