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On research at Hampshire Police Fingerprint Bureau

I spent a fascinating morning at the Fingerprint Bureau at Hampshire Police Support Headquarters at Netley on Saturday studying how the fingerprints taken at the scene of crime and of people in police custody are identified.

Although I've researched this topic before and had help from the Fingerprint Bureau I was there specifically to ask questions that relate to the DI Andy Horton crime novel I'm currently writing, number twelve in the series.  And I'm pleased that not only were my questions answered but the information I gained threw up some further interesting plot lines, which of course I'm not going to spoil by mentioning here. 

Pauline Rowson with fingerprint examiners at CSI Portsmouth 2013The team from Hampshire Police Fingerprint Bureau have always been extremely helpful, turning up as they do for CSI Portsmouth every year (a one day event where crime fiction meets crime fact) and also for CSI Basingstoke, which I helped to organise in July 2013, and CSI Winchester, which I was involved with. So I have lots of reasons to be grateful to them.

Pauline Rowson with Jane Ashton at the Fingerprint Bureau Hampshire PoliceOn Saturday, Jane Ashton, Supervisory Fingerprint Examiner, showed me around the modern single storey building named Herschel House appropriately after the father of fingerprinting William James Herschel who was born in Slough on 9th January 1833.  He was the grandson of astronomer William Herschel, and the son of John Herschel, also an astronomer but his father asked him to choose another career, luckily for us, and he joined the East India Company.

Following the Indian Mutiny of 1858 he joined the Indian Civil Service and it was here, while drawing up a contract with a local man, that he made him use a hand print in order to prevent him from denying the contract later.

Throughout his life Herschel experimented with fingerprints using them to prevent forgery and as an administrative tool.  But it was Francis Galton and Edward Henry, building on the foundations that Herschel had laid, that turned fingerprinting into a tool for fighting crime. And I saw it in action.

Jane had several files on her desk of prints taken at crime scenes with the locations of where they had been lifted clearly written on the lightweight plastic squares. Some prints were quite clear, others rather smudgy, to me at least, although Jane with her vast experience and training quickly dismissed that, she could see through the grey smudges to clear prints.  These had been lifted primarily from burglaries but I also saw some interesting photographs of prints lifted using chemicals taken from wrappings on a drugs hauls. The prints taken of those in custody were on paper and therefore were very clear.

Although the police have a computer system for fingerprints called IDENT1, fingerprints are still physically examined by humans, through an eye glass and by careful study. The trained examiners know exactly what to look for and how skin reacts, ages and can be scarred.   They can spot a scar and other smaller details that IDENT1 can't.

Fingerprints taken at the scene of the crime without a suspect in custody will be studied by the examiner, scanned and then run through IDENT1 to see if a match comes up. The match will be run for those first in the county of Hampshire and then widened to the outlying counties and if the officers at the crime scene have reason to believe the crime could have been committed by someone from outside the immediate area, and/or if the crime is a major one then the search will broaden to national.  The image on the computer will be compared to that taken at the scene and the trained fingerprint examiners will be able to confirm if they have a match.  Fingerprints, palm prints and toe prints don't lie. They are unique and even identical twins will have different fingerprints.

Fingerprints on objects can survive for a very long time and can be lifted from paint, oil grease and from those left in blood.

I thought with all the villains watching CSI and police drama programmes on television they'd all be wearing gloves and know exactly how to avoid leaving fingerprints but not so it seems, thankfully.  Many crimes are committed in haste, those that are opportunistic, those by drug addicts desperate to get money for their next fix who never think rationally or intelligently, and never stop to wear gloves.  And even in the serious and organised crimes I'm informed that villains will often remove their gloves or a glove for one reason or another  (sometimes to go to the toilet). It is very difficult to keep gloves on all the time, they will leave a tell-tale mark somewhere and the role of the scene of crime officers is to find that.  The role of the fingerprint examiners are to identify it and if it can't be identified because the criminal is not on the database then it is held until one day that person commits another offence and it is matched.

It's a fascinating topic and I enjoyed my visit tremendously.   My thanks to Jane Ashton and her team at Hampshire Police Fingerprint Bureau, keep up the good work!

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NOVEMBER 18TH, 2013 @ 6:07:23 GMT


RE: On research at Hampshire Police Fingerprint Bureau

Well done - I wish I had been with you on this time of education.

Enjoy your books.


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