Police departments breaking the law, failing to fingerprint - abc27 WHTM

Police departments breaking the law, failing to fingerprint

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They were arrested in Pennsylvania, some for violent crimes like sexual assaults - even murder - yet they were not fingerprinted and inputted into the system.

An estimated 30,000 arrestees slipped through the cracks, despite a law that requires police to fingerprint within 48 hours.

It's not a new law.

"Pennsylvania has had a statute requiring fingerprinting at the time of arrest since 1927," Lt. Col. Scott Snyder of the Pennsylvania State Police testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.

Fingerprinting is not just loops and whirls, it's crucial to quality background checks that are conducted for jobs or gun purchases. They also connect the dots on criminal history.

"Fingerprints are really the only true way to conclusively verify an individual's identity," Snyder said.

Representative Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) is the Judiciary Committee chairman who held the hearing to shine a light on the problem and figure out why police departments are routinely breaking the fingerprinting law.

"It's important for us to know, and the courts to know, and police to know, that someone has a criminal history," Marsico said.

Statewide, 13 percent of arrestees were not fingerprinted last year, but in some rural areas it's as high as 42 percent.

"If you have a one-person police department, one officer on duty, it's hard for that officer to be out on the streets patrolling as well as fingerprinting someone," explained Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.

Technology is also an issue. Much of the state has the latest fingerprinting equipment, but not all.

"Some police departments are understaffed or they're using old equipment with ink and fingers and paper rather than the live scan systems," said Representative Glen Grell (R-Cumberland), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Fingerprinting suspects sounds obvious and it is the law, but it isn't always easy, experts say. Often, suspects are combative, or intoxicated, or unconscious, or injured and fingerprinting isn't possible. There are also big-picture questions that reduce compliance numbers.

"Who should pay for fingerprints?" David Price of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts asked committee members. "Should we merely send a person down to the sheriff's office and have them fingerprinted over there? Does the sheriff's office have a live scan equipment? Do they have the personnel?"

The law clearly requires the arresting police departments to fingerprint, but cops say courts could help out by holding up cases until fingerprints are complete.

"There should be some check and balances within the judicial process at the court level to ensure that these cases aren't disposed of without fingerprints being required," Snyder said.

Failing to fingerprint 13 percent of arrestees, 30,000 people, sounds high. But in 2006, 33 percent slipped through the cracks.

"We're doing better, but there's more work to do," Bergstrom said.

The report, issued by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, found that Harrisburg police fingerprint 80 percent of suspects. That's less than the statewide average of 87 percent.

Interestingly, Philadelphia is the best in the state, with a 99-percent fingerprint rate. Four midstate counties (Lebanon, Adams, Cumberland and York) are among the 11 best.

Luzerne County was the worst at just 42.3 percent.

For a complete list of the county-by-county report, go to www.pacjabdash.com.

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