Crime author Pauline Rowson on the facts behind fingerprinting

Hampshire Police Fingerprint Bureau have assisted me many times with my research for my Inspector Andy Horton crime novels for which I'm very grateful. I've visited Hampshire Police Support Headquarters at Netley to study how the fingerprints taken at the scene of crime and of people in police custody are identified.

Crime author Pauline Rowson with Jane Ashton, Supervisory Fingerprint Examiner

Jane Ashton, Supervisory Fingerprint Examiner, showed me around the modern single storey building at Hampshire Police Support Headquarters 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 dramas 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.   My thanks to Jane Ashton and her team at Hampshire Police Fingerprint

DEAD PASSAGE, number 14 in the DI Andy Horton crime series, available in paperback, e book and on Amazon Kindle.

A mysterious telephone call sends Horton on a complex and twisted investigation into the death of a local politician twelve years ago and uncovers a trail of lies, secrets and revenge with roots deep in the past.

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Also available as an ebook and on Amazon Kindle, Kobo and for loan from UK, USA, Irish and Commonwealth libraries

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