Experts Survey Causes of Fingerprint Analysis Errors

A new report from a panel appointed in 2008 to study the causes and recommend ways to reduce errors caps its work with forensic experts.

About two and a half years of work by a blue-ribbon panel has produced a thick report exploring the main causes of errors in latent fingerprint analysis and ways to limit them. The Expert Working Group on Human Factors in Latent Print Analysis was appointed in 2008 and subsequently met nine times to hear from forensic experts and develop the document.

Their work was funded by the units of the federal Justice and Commerce departments.

Fingerprint analysis remains the most reliable, most legally accepted method for connecting someone with a crime. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, whose Law Enforcement Standards Office sponsored the panel's work, some high-profile cases in the past 20 years showed expert analysts can make mistakes, however. This is why the panel was formed.

The panel made 34 recommendations to address problems resulting from human error, including:

  • Urging management at forensic service provider facilities to foster a culture in which it is understood that some human error is inevitable and openness about errors leads to improvements in practice.
  • Documenting latent print examinations at a detail level that would permit another examiner to assess the accuracy and validity of the work.
  • Requiring agencies that employ latent print examiners to establish requirements and guidelines for reporting, documentation, and testimony that are reviewed at least annually for each examiner.
  • Intensely preparing print examiners and other forensic experts to give credible and accurate testimony in trials, stressing skills such as using lay language, creating visuals that can easily be understood, and thinking clearly under cross-examination.

The "Latent Print Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice through a Systems Approach" report includes a chapter about new and future methods and technologies, as well as a chapter covering the current status of education and training for latent print examiners. An appendix lists all formal recommendations.

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