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Thursday, 28 June, 2001, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
Will prints continue to finger criminals?
Graphic BBC
British police have been using fingerprints for 100 years this week. But a century on, can "dabs" still cut it as a crime fighting technique in the DNA age?

When 41-year-old Harry Jackson planted his dirty mits on the windowsill of a house in Denmark Hill on 27 June, 1902, little did he know his poignantly unambitious theft of some billiard balls would land him in the annals of law enforcement history... and a prison cell.

Prince Charles playing pool AP
"Who's had away with the cueball?"
The labourer was the first British criminal to be successfully connected to a crime and prosecuted on the strength of fingerprint evidence.

The Metropolitan Police Service Fingerprint Bureau had been founded less than a year before the Denmark Hill burglary, its three staff working under the eye of Sir Edward Henry.

As a senior police officer in British-run India, Sir Edward had recognised the crime fighting potential of the observation that every person has a unique set of fingerprints.

Hands up

Prior to his refinement of fingerprint identification - or dactyloscopy - career criminals would often give a false name to the court, secure in the knowledge past convictions would not come to the attention of the judge.

Previous attempts to catalogue criminals had involved taking a cumbersome series of bodily measurements, including noting details of a culprit's nose, ears, forearms and feet.

Eric Cantona PA
"It wasn't me"
Alphonse Bertillion's system was adopted by many of the world's police forces, despite the difficulty and margin of error in taking the 11 measurements the Frenchman demanded.

The chance of a person's "Bertillionage" profile matching another was estimated at four million to one - compared to the 67 billion to one likelihood of two people sharing the same fingerprint pattern.

The reliability of Bertillionage was dealt a fatal blow in 1903, just as London's fingerprint bureau was getting into its stride (and Sir Edward was made the Met's Commissioner).

Measuring up

A clerk at America's Leavenworth Prison was convinced he had taken the measurements of new arrival Will West before. Checking the records, he found an exact match, except that this William West was already a serving inmate.

Staggeringly, though they shared a name and Bertillionage measurements, the two men were not related.

Fingerprint recording BBC
Fingerprints are unique
Bertillionage's loss was dactyloscopy's gain. As well as being unique, a person's fingerprints do not change as they age. Nor does damage to the epidermis compromise their pattern, since new skin grows back to exactly match the original ridges and swirls.

Also, thanks to the glands that secrete fatty substances from the fingertips, humans leave an easy-to-read calling card on almost every object they touch.

But with advances in DNA technology, are the days of the scenes of crime officer collecting "dabs" with a dusting brush and a piece of sticky tape numbered?

Tip top

Dr Barbara Daniels, a forensic science lecturer at King's College London, says conventional fingerprinting has not had its day quite yet.

"You can still get a hell of a lot from fingerprints," she says, especially since some criminals inexplicably leave no DNA traces behind them.

A scene of crimes officer Police
Fingerprint collection is a staple of crimefighting
Although automated, fingerprint archives are indeed harder to search through for matches than DNA records - which can more easily be reduced to a series of numbers.

However, with the Met alone boasting a database of a massive 1.5 million fingerprints, DNA identification has a long way to go before it becomes the primary means of collaring villains.

Indeed, research is still going on to improve fingerprinting technology, says chemist Dr Sue Jickells.

Her work has shown that the secretions left by our fingertips can be surprisingly resilient. While some of the substances degrade quickly, others can remain for at least a month.

Evidence that sticks

"The fatty substances are not readily washed away by even the rain. Try putting your print on a glass and run it under the tap. You'll still see something there," says Dr Jickells.

"My gut feeling is that fingerprints will never be replaced by DNA. Courts will be presented with a combination of the two, which would in effect offer double the evidential value."

Tissue engineered mouse BBC
"Cheese theft? You've got the wrong mouse"
Ironically, it is a technique harking back to Bertillionage which may in the future help trap the criminals who don gloves in a bid to outwit the fingerprint teams.

Earprints are seriously being investigated as a means to identify culprits, says Dr Daniels.

"It's astonishing the number of burglars who listen at doors or windows before breaking in, leaving their earprints behind."

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01 Sep 00 | UK
A catalogue of criminals
02 Jan 99 | Sci/Tech
Police play it by ear
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