In 1901, Scotland Yard became the first law enforcement agency in the work to routinely fingerprint its arrestees. Fingerprint identification came to America in 1904 when the St. Louis Police Department established its fingerprint bureau. Before fingerprinting, arrestees were identified by sets of eleven body measurements, a system created in the 1870's by the Frenchman, Alphonse Bertillon. By 1914, the year of Bertillon's death, fingerprinting had replaced anthropometry or Bertillonage in every country except America where, in many jurisdictions, the outdated system was used until the 1920's.
Because a set of inked, rolled-on fingerprint impressions can be classified or grouped into ridge patterns -- loops, whorls, and arches -- arrestees who use aliases can be physically identified. Through centralized fingerprint repositories comprised of millions of fingerprint cards, individual arrest histories can be maintained on habitual offenders. These fingerprint collections are also responsible for the apprehension, every year, of thousands of fugitives. For example, a suspect wanted in for murder in Seattle who is arrested for burglary in Tampa, after his prints are matched with the Seattle fingerprint card, can be held in Tampa for the authorities who have been looking for him.
Beyond the use of fingerprinting to maintain crime records and to catch fugitives, crime scene finger marks -- so-called latent fingerprints -- constitute one of the most common methods of linking suspects to the sites of their crimes. While latents can be made visible by various chemicals, iodine fuming, and laser technology, the most popular method of identifying and preserving fingerprints, particularly on hard surfaces, involves the use of fingerprint powder and special lifting tape.
Crime scene latents can now be fed into a massive computer -- the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) -- and matched with a single rolled-on impression in the computer. Identifying unknown crime scene latents in this way is one of the few instances where forensic science can solve and prove the case. Perhaps the three most significant developments in the history of law enforcement and criminal investigation include fingerprint classification, AFIS, and the cutting edge science of DNA "fingerprinting."