Patrol officers to begin fingerprinting stolen cars 

Police officers are being trained to use decidedly low-tech crime-fighting technology to help solve crimes like auto theft: fingerprinting.

There are currently 16 San Francisco Police Department crime scene investigators who regularly go to homicides, burglaries, assaults and other crimes. They not only collect fingerprints, but ballistics information and DNA as well. There are not enough resources, however, to dedicate to lower-level crimes, such as auto thefts.

In a shift in policy, police Chief George Gascón is having patrol officers trained to take fingerprint samples from the thousands of cars that are broken into or stolen every year. Frontline officers have been taking classes at the Police Academy and will continue to in the upcoming months.

By training the patrol force — officers in squad cars that respond to calls — the amount of fingerprint evidence should increase

With more than 5,000 reported cases of auto thefts in The City last year, prosecutors and victims say the policy could help catch criminals.

But some worry that dusting every scene for fingerprints will interfere with more important police work, such as responding to the scene of a violent crime. Gascón said those concerns are valid, and he wouldn’t want to take officers away from priority crimes. But as officers are waiting for a truck to tow away a stolen car, or if they respond to a citizen who just had a window smashed,  the fingerprinting process would be quick.

“It only takes a few minutes to go over some key points in a car,” Gascón said. “And who knows? Maybe three, four, six months later, results will start coming back.”

Using fingerprints as identification has been in practice since the late 19th century. In latent fingerprint examination, an officer sprinkles dust over the affected area, brushes away excess dust and takes sticky material such as clear tape to lift the fingerprint.

Jeff Ross, chief of the criminal division of the District Attorney’s Office, called the new policy a “major paradigm shift,” with benefits for both prosecutors and police.

For new officers, it gives them the chance to practice more comprehensive police work. Young officers are more engaged early in their careers, he said. Prosecutors may not always be able to use the prints, but a smudged or faulty fingerprint can be explained.

“You may not always get evidence when you take prints, but it’s hard to explain to a jury why you didn’t try,” Ross said.

Laurel Fiske, a 28-year-old Mission district resident, has had her 1998 Honda Accord stolen and recovered twice. She called the idea “fabulous,” but had her doubts that it would actually happen.

“Considering it’s something I honestly don’t expect the police to do, to go that extra mile, I’d be pretty impressed if I saw them fingerprinting my car,” Fiske said. “I’d at least think they had a chance of catching whoever stole my car.”


Gone in 60 seconds

Although police say not nearly all thefts from vehicles are reported, thousands are recorded in police reports every year.

            Car Burglaries    Auto thefts
2008     12,180               6,206
2009     11,075               5,081

Source: SFPD

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Brent Begin

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