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Universal Fingerprinting: An Old Idea that Keeps Coming Back
By Jim Fisher

Americans have had an eight-year fascination, love affair is you will, with fingerprints. During the 1920's and 30's, law enforcement leaders like Police Chief August Vollmer of Berkeley, California and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed that the widespread use of fingerprinting and the other crime-fighting sciences of firearms identification, questioned documents, and forensics chemistry, would someday bring America's massive crime problem to its knees. Although incredibly naïve, most police thinkers of that era believed this, and the American public bought it too. It's therefore not surprising that during this era, men such as Vollmer and Hoover began to think seriously about fingerprinting everyone – a concept called universal fingerprinting.

Most citizens never get arrested, therefore the fingerprints of a vast majority of the population are not taken and filed away for further use. However, by fingerprinting everyone – housewives, babies, factory workers, and school children – America's fingerprint collection would be complete. It is this idea that appeals to advocates of universal fingerprinting.

Although today, the police and the public have a more realistic view of crime and criminals, the criminalistic science of fingerprints is still a symbol of police professionalism and successful crime fighting. In the mid-1980's, at the height of the missing children scare, programs promoting the voluntary fingerprinting of school children and babies sprang up all over the country.

The idea of fingerprinting everyone – either voluntarily or by law, has been around as long as fingerprinting itself. In 1930, August Vollmer began talking and writing about the advantages of universal fingerprinting. He figured that everybody would benefit from such a program. For example, the police would get an effective crime-fighting tool that would help catch criminals and eventually prevent crime. If job applicants were fingerprinted, employers would know who they were hiring and could turn away those candidates with criminal records. Moreover, victims of fires, plane crashes, and other disasters could be identified, and so could missing children and people found dead on the street, in the woods, or in the water. There were less obvious advantages as well – the government could deal more effectively with illegal aliens, merchants could protect themselves against bad checks, hotel beats, and other kinds of fraud, the IRS could catch tax cheats, and the census bureau could do a better job.1

Vollmer's advocacy of universal fingerprinting contradicted, to a certain degree, his leanings as a civil libertarian. This is probably what kept him from pushing for laws to make the fingerprinting of noncriminals mandatory. Vollmer wanted to educate people – teach them the advantages of fingerprinting so they would ask to be officially printed. He hoped to do this by getting service clubs, lodges, magazines, and newspapers interested in his idea. These groups would in turn sponsor programs to educate and indoctrinate the public.2

August Vollmer wasn't the first to think about or to propose universal fingerprinting. In 1916, Juan Vucetich, Argentina's great criminalist and fingerprint pioneer, was the driving force behind a law passed in his country that required the entire population, including foreign residents and visitors, to be fingerprinted. Following the passage of this statute, the reaction against it was so strong, the law was quickly repealed. Vucetich died in 1925 and the idea of fingerprinting everyone has not been brought up again in Argentina.

The movement to fingerprint noncriminals really got underway in America in the mid-1930's at the height of the great crime wave. During this period J Edgar Hoover used the media and exploited public fear of crime to make his case. He even got people like John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Walt Disney, and President Roosevelt to have themselves printed.3

By 1934, police departments all over America routinely fingerprinted everyone they arrested. The fingerprint card of each arrestee was sent to the FBI's National Fingerprint Bureau in Washington, D.C.4 That year, Hoover informed the House Appropriations Committee that his fingerprint bureau housed five million sets of prints, the largest collection of its kind in the world. It was also in 1934 that he added what he called the “civilian fingerprints” to the national bureau. This collection was made up of the noncriminal fingerprints of federal employees and those who had volunteered to be printed. (In 15 years this file would hold 20 million fingerprint sets.)5 Hoover also advised the House Appropriations Committee that it was his dream to add to this file the fingerprints of every American citizen.6

By 1936 August Vollmer had retired from the Berkeley Police Department and was teaching police administration at the University of California. That year he arranged a special town election to ask voters if they objected to a campaign to get people to volunteer their prints. Vollmer was well known and popular in Berkeley, and the people there voted three to one in favor of his program. During the next two years, sixteen thousand citizens, about half the town's population, were fingerprinted.7 (Eventually, the Berkeley Police Department would send fifty-two thousand prints to the FBI.)

Vollmer had launched his fingerprinting campaign by taking the prints of Dr. Robert G. Sproul, the president of the University of California. Dr. Sproul was fingerprinted at a booth set up for that purpose on the Berkeley campus. But even in Berkeley there was some resistance to universal fingerprinting. Many factory workers who had been asked to submit by their employers were suspicious that it was a management scheme to gain control over labor. Others feared the program would someday become involuntary.

1. For a more detailed discussion of the benefits outlined by Vollmer, see: “Universal Registration,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, (September – October, 1935) pp. 650-2. See also: “Volunteer Fingerprinting,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, (May – June, 1934), p. 173.
2. Vollmer's methods of getting public support is reported in: “Vollmer Advises that all Citizens be Fingerprinted,” Christian Science Monitor, (October 16, 1933.) See also: Enright, R.E., “Everybody should be Fingerprinted,” Scientific American, (July, 1925)
3. Walker, Samuel, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice, (NY: Oxford University Press, 1980) p. 188.
4. J. Edgar Hoover set up the National Fingerprint Bureau in 1924 following a congressional mandate to do so. Starting with 800,000 sets of prints previously on file at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary and other fingerprint repositories, the bureau built up a collection that today numbers over 500 million.
5. These statistics are from: Police Systems in the United States, Revised Edition, by Bruce Smith (NY: Harper, 1949).
6. Silver, Isidore, The Crime Control Establishment, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979), p. 39.
7. See: Parker, Alfred E., The Berkley Police Story, (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1972) p. 171. See also: “Fingerprinting of Citizens Gains Official Backing, Christian Science Monitor, (May 14, 1936).

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com