Sticky Fingers: A Glimpse into the Work of a Latent Print Examiner

Author:  Ria Foye

Institution:  Syracuse University


From the moment of conception until the time of death, there is no doubt that nearly all physical features of the body undergo change. For instance, bone lengths and teeth surfaces: the  length of a newborn’s spine is clearly shorter than that of an adolescent while similarly over time, teeth wear down and surface patterns become unique to  one individual. While these and many other body parts are continuously undergoing change, there is one bodily characteristic that remains constant throughout a lifetime - the specific ridge patterns that constitute a fingerprint. 

In the past, fingerprints have been used as a personal signature, a bookkeeping instrument and even as a religious “pact” to affirm one’s commitment to a particular faith. But, it wasn’t until 221 B.C that fingerprints were first used to link criminal activity and personal identification by the Chinese. However, times have changed and criminals have since advanced the tricks of the trade. Almost as a natural response, the field of forensic science spawned and is now viewed as the helping hand of law enforcement agencies around the globe.  

The branch of forensic science that deals specifically with identifying the minute details of ridge patterns on the palms of hands, soles of feet, and even lip and ear prints is known as latent print examination. As the name implies, latent prints are impressions left behind that are not visible to the naked eye. A latent print examiner utilizes identification techniques to analyze fingerprints left at a crime. Since there are hundreds of unique points on a single fingerprint, partial prints can be used as a major piece of evidence to either prove or disprove a suspect’s presence at a given scene.  

So what exactly does the job of a Latent Print Examiner entail? Is their work as glamorous as CSI: Miami or Criminal Minds portrays it to be? David P. Tate, an active latent print examiner at The Wallie Howard Jr. Center for Forensic Sciences in Syracuse, New York, provides an inside view on what a typical day as a latent print examiner is like and the academic journey he’s taken to get there. 

Like most forensic science students, David Tate became interested in the field from watching shows such as CSI and Law and Order. Tate explained, “Coming out of high school, I was interested in doing investigative work, possibly forensic science. It was due to the plethora of crime TV shows that were on and I caught the ‘bug’ like most people.”  

The growing interest in forensics propelled Tate to enroll at the University of Albany and pursue a B.S. in Human Biology where he wavered between Anthropology and Forensics coursework. But, it wasn’t until his final year as an undergraduate that he decided Forensics was the better choice in terms of graduate school and his future career.  

“The science background is very important in the crime lab, no matter which discipline in the crime lab you are going to work in - whether that’s latent prints, firearms or DNA. Having the science background is something that every crime lab wants to see,” Tate reinforces.  

After successfully completing his undergraduate degree, Tate went on to obtain a M.S. 

in Forensic Science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut to become a more competitive applicant for a career in forensic science. It was during his time at New Haven where he discovered latent print examination.  

“I actually found out that I wanted to go into latent prints as a discipline really late in my graduate career...New Haven had a latent print class they offered once a year as an elective, but by the time I decided I was interested in fingerprints it was a bit too late - I had already finished all my work.”  

For David Tate, his interest in latent prints did not stop once his studies ended and reemerged while he interned at the Hartford Connecticut Police Department.  

“I worked with a detective whose job was essentially to be the fingerprint guy and a lot of people might find it kind of boring, but I thought it was interesting to look through latent prints or fingerprints in general and try to match things was my first real experience with it,” Tate notes.  

During this internship experience with latent prints, Tate learned the basics of latent print examination and what the “fingerprint guy” really does. He compares it to puzzle solving: “It’s like an individual task that you can complete...[only] if you have that mentality to be able and sit down and hunt for something for a while, not knowing whether it may be there or not. Sometimes you’ll finish, sometimes you won’t.”  

Of course, all latent print examiners want to be the guy or girl who “finishes” as opposed to the one who doesn’t. That being said, what are some of the characteristics that make someone a successful latent print examiner?  

Tate shares, “Attention to detail is a big one! [It’s] very important because there’s a lot of, not just in looking at latent prints, but [when] working in a laboratory you need to have this detailed, task-minded mindset.”  

Much of Tate’s time is spent on processing crime scene evidence in the laboratory. 

He shares, “For us at the Onondaga County Center for Forensic Sciences we stay within the laboratory, so all the crime scene evidence is collected by various police agencies in the county and then submitted to us. We take over from there and do the processing to try and develop latent prints using photography as a means of preservation and other chemicals.”  

When the initial analysis is completed, Tate must then write a report to document his findings. But it doesn’t end there. Tate must also participate in a peer review process within the laboratory - he must review the work of his colleagues and check for clerical errors to make sure all policies have been adhered to. 

“The idea is that two competent examiners should arrived at the same conclusion if they are doing things in the same way, [it’s] sort of a consensus approach,” Tate adds. 

Along with his day to day tasks, Tate is also called to testify as an expert witness several times a year. However, these tasks can vary depending on what type of case he is working on and its severity and which semesters he is actively teaching. 

“Even though less than a percentage of cases that I work actually make it to the courtroom, at least requiring me to testify, I’m still testifying about eight times or so a year and that encompasses all of my duties,” Tate declares.  

It is evident that fingerprint examination is ideal for those who are like David: someone who is visually oriented and enjoys the hunt for minute detail within patterns. Luckily, technological advances in visualization techniques along with much practice make the job quite adaptable for those in the beginning stages of their career as a latent print examiner. 

Tate recalls, “One of the critiques, but also one of the truths of latent prints as a field is that it’s very experience based, but it’s a discipline that when you first start looking at blurred, distorted fragments of a fingerprint, you are not observing all the information whether that’s the distortion or the flow of the ridges, you are not recognizing it as quickly or in the same manner as someone who’s been able to see that sort of occurrence thousands of times.”  

The undergraduate and graduate backgrounds can vary from each student who seeks to enter into latent print examination. For instance, Tate declares that during his undergraduate career, “I didn’t take any latent print classes and to my knowledge still at this point in the United States there is no latent print actually have an entire track towards it is very rare.”  

As Tate explained, there are no degrees geared specifically towards latent print examination, however there are a number of certificate programs that are aimed at teaching identification and latent print matters. Like David Tate, students with degrees in various areas of STEM are able to make use of their skills and with much practice, become adept practitioners in the field of latent print examination