Criminal Identification: Fingerprinting

In 1904, George Koestle and Chief of Police Fred Kohler traveled to the St. Louis World’s Fair to witness a demonstration of a new method of criminal identification, fingerprinting.  Based on a centuries-old Chinese method, the Henry System used the unique pattern of loops and whorls found on each fingerprint to classify the prints and help to identify distinct individuals. Koestle joined the first fingerprinting class in the United States and then brought this innovative system to the Cleveland Police Department.

George Koestle examining fingerprints
George Koestle demonstrating the fingerprinting technique to Cleveland police officers

The Bureau of Criminal Identification in Cleveland took its first set of fingerprints on December 29, 1904.  For many years, fingerprints were simply added to the back of a suspect’s Bertillon Card.  The Bertillon method was fully replaced by the Henry Fingerprint System on January 1, 1927.  This method, known as the Henry System, became universally used. In 1938, Cleveland police fingerprinted and photographs an average of 6,000 suspects per year.

On the cutting edge of law enforcement technology at the turn of the century, the Cleveland Police were among the first in the country to begin usins fingerprints as a method of identification. Patrolman Frank E. Texler #276 is “in the pit” recording personal information while Patrolman Ernest C. Ohlrich #575 obtains prints.

Koestle also achieved one of the first convictions using a palmprint. In July 1917, a residence in Elyria was broken into and burglarized. Police found a latent palm print on a window. After tracking down and arresting a suspect named Samuel Betts, his palm print was matched to the one found on the window, thus sealing his fate.

Palm prints were taken on serious crimes as routine as taking fingerprints. These cards are classified and put on file the same as fingerprints. As of January 1, 1965 there were 160,000 palm print cards on file.

Samuel Betts’ palm print and mug shots

Fingerprint card with mug shot for Helen Norris, 1930
Fingerprint card with mug shot for Helen Norris, 1930

In 1989, the Cleveland Division of Police took a major step forward in fingerprint technology when it acquired a sophisticated computer system for use by its scientific investigation unit officers: AFIS, short for Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Developed by the FBI, AFIS was first used in 1978. However, the high expense slowed adoption across the country.  In 1989, Cleveland was one of just a handful of other cities, and the only city in Ohio, to acquire the system.

Plain Dealer, 5/1/1989

In 1989, SIU Superintendent Victor E. Kovacic stated, “We have 75,000 latent fingerprints – prints that have never been matched that we have taken from various crime scenes – to 200,000 prints we have in our criminal files.” The fingerprint files dated back to 1920. In the past, investigators manually checked fingerprints from a crime scene to those on file, a process that could take several days to weeks. With AFIS, fingerprints could be matched in minutes.

AFIS provided “an arsenal of tools for image enhancement, matching, display and comparison.” Another component of the system was an electronic reader, which scanned and digitally reproduced and compared a suspect’s fingerprints, eliminating the need for ink rollers and paper cards.

Demonstrating fingerprinting
Fingerprint cards on file

It took many months for the system to become fully operational, since each latent and filed print needed to be upload to AFIS. In August 1990, a successful test of the system matched a latent print from a bank robbery to suspect in less than thirty minutes. Detective Earl Brown explained that, “the suspect was identified through a fingerprint taken from his demand note to a teller. The latent fingerprint was on file. The suspect has an extensive arrest record for robbery and felonious assault.”

Plain Dealer, 8/15/1990

Plain Dealer, 3/9/1990
Plain Dealer, 3/9/1990
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