The Finger Prince
It's a slow day at the Chittenden County Sheriff's Department, a brown, boxy building wrapped in steel mesh behind the Burlington airport. Deputy Sheriff Richard Rowden, the department's fingerprint technician, is getting ready to fingerprint a thin, bearded man in his twenties.
Rowden, 57, is short and stocky, with a bald head, round glasses and thick hands that look as if they crush walnuts during his coffee breaks. Despite his burly physique, his demeanor is disarming.
"We offer free glossy photos, free transportation and free room and board," Rowden says, swabbing his client's fingertips with a baby wipe. "Now all you've got to do is confess."
The man smiles. He's not a suspect, just an applicant for a job that requires a criminal background check. Still, getting fingerprinted makes some people feel as though they've been arrested.
Standing at a contraption the size of an ATM, Rowden types data into the computer, then takes the man's wrists and delicately rolls each finger over a scanner. There's no ink involved - this $20,000 gizmo, purchased with Homeland Security funds, reads fingerprints with an infrared beam. The process takes about five minutes and costs the client $15.
Most of Rowden's work these days involves routine fingerprinting. In addition to job applicants, his customers include folks applying for foreign visas, commercial driver's licenses, stockbroker licenses and even adoptions. Rowden is busiest in the fall, when new teachers are being hired. At times, he's fingerprinted as many as 75 people in one day. This week, he'll handle about 20.
Rowden learned this skill as a Burlington Police detective, a job he held for 27 years. With the click of a mouse, he pulls up a thumbprint he just scanned and explains the rudiments of identifying its unique characteristics according to its "loops," "arches" or "whorls." This one has a "delta," a Y-shaped pattern that resembles the confluence of two rivers. Another click, and the black-and-white fingerprint onscreen lights up with a series of green dots, lines and circles that pick out other unique identifiers.
"That's called the minutiae," Rowden explains. "That's what the computer goes looking for when they do an electronic fingerprint ID"
Typically, the courts require at least nine points of identification to match a suspect to a fingerprint. Mathematically, it's virtually impossible for two people to have that many points in common.
Years ago, Rowden used to search for these minutiae points by hand, going through hundreds, sometimes thousands, of fingerprint cards before finding a match. Today, the work takes minutes at most.
The sheriff's department doesn't keep these fingerprints on file, or even run each person through the Vermont Criminal Information Center for outstanding warrants - though the technology is coming soon. But Rowden doesn't worry that wanted criminals are slipping through his fingertips. "When they go through the FBI background check," he says, "it'll pop up there."
SEVEN DAYS: Do you see more jobs requiring background checks these days?
RICHARD ROWDEN: Since 9/11, the number of fingerprint applicants has risen considerably. Before, they just did a regular background check. Now, they do a thorough background check through the FBI fingerprint center. Homeland Security now requires more agencies' employees to be fingerprinted . . . like anybody who handles hazardous materials as a driver. When you're handling tons of hazardous waste, it's nice to know who's driving the vehicle.
SD: Has your work ever determined the outcome of a criminal case?
RR: Oh, yeah. We had several when I worked for Burlington where cases were made on fingerprints or palm prints. In one case, we found a knife at the crime scene behind a clothes basket. The guy had stabbed the clerk and it had his palm print on it. That did it.
SD: Any others?
RR: I had one guy who vandalized his girlfriend's house. He went in and tore up a bunch of her pictures. We fingerprinted the pictures and I found several prints on them. So, we checked it out and brought him in. He said, "Yeah, those are my fingerprints. But I used to live with her." I said, "Check the date on the back of the picture. It was after you moved out that she got the pictures developed." So, we got him.
SD: Do you use inked fingerprinting anymore?
RR: There are still some occasions where we have to. Some states, their [fingerprint] cards aren't the same formats [as Vermont's]. I do out-of-state prints, too, when people are moving. Some states require prints for medical licenses and nurses' licenses, so I do a lot of those. Occasionally, I can't get as good a fingerprint on the live scan as I can with ink.
SD: Why not?
RR: The condition of their hands. Dryness and weather affects fingerprints. Starting in October, through the first part of March, I see a lot of changes in the fingerprints . . . I've also dealt with people who are physically handicapped, so there are challenges there, too. If somebody has a hand that's frozen or locked up, it's more difficult. So I have special equipment for taking those fingerprints. Or if they have an amputation or are missing a finger, there's a place to indicate that, too.
SD: Have you come across especially unusual prints?
RR: I've seen a happy face in the middle of a fingerprint. I've seen a number 13 in the center. I've got a couple of them right here. [He pulls out an old fingerprint card.] These are what we call "accidentals." Look for the deltas. How many do you see?
SD: Um . . . I see three.
RR: Those are the most uncommon fingerprints of all. To have an accidental fingerprint is extremely rare. If you find an accidental fingerprint at a crime scene, you've eliminated 95 percent of the population. This guy here has three accidentals on his hand. He'd be extremely easy to identify.
SD: You must be a fan of "CSI."
RR: Yeah, I watch the crime-scene shows. It's interesting because a lot of the technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. They bend the rules, and their speed is a lot faster than ours. And I see mistakes, but that's TV for you. But those shows have piqued the interest of a lot of young kids. High schools are now teaching forensics courses. More kids are getting involved in biology because of their interest in doing crime investigation work.
SD: Are people who come in here ever concerned about privacy issues?
RR: Nope, because the computer is password protected. And we only keep the data for four months. Then it's automatically expunged from the computer. The way it's set up here, I can't even go into the computer and look up someone's name.
SD: What's the best part of your job?
RR: I enjoy meeting people, so this is an excellent job for me. I don't care who it is; it's just interesting talking to different people . . . And it's a nice job because it keeps me in touch with a lot of the other officers, too.