One Reporter's Take On BCI

“Plymouth County BCI unit captures evidence”
By Andria Farrell of the Duxbury Reporter
Thu May 15, 2008

Once, criminals could be identified using the black ink across their fingers. Now, a laser scanner the size of a Big Mac container — which replaced one the size of a large vending machine — captures every crevice of their fingers.

Tucked inside the administration building of the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department is the departments “hidden gem” — the Bureau of Criminal Investigations. The bureau’s leader, BCI director Bob Foley, is the “Yoda” of BCI, bureau spokesman John Birtwell said.

“I have only seen him testify once, but he is like the voice of God when he gets up there,” Birtwell said. “He knows it all very well.”

The technology used to investigate a crime has changed since Foley began. The black ink fingerprints studied under a magnifying glass are now digitally captured, routed onto a computer screen, scanned through thousands of criminals for points of match and then magnified 100 times to pinpoint each matching curve and line in a print. The grainy images from a digital camera are considered a blessing in the technology-savvy department.

Foley said fingerprints have become a method of the 20th century, as DNA becomes the 21st-century method of identification. However, DNA is not foolproof because of the risk of contamination and the ability to gather the evidence at the crime scene. On the other hand, analyzing a fingerprint through the computer database is the tried-and-true method, Birtwell said.

“In some jury trials, at least in terms of the fingerprints, more of the public is familiar with and aware of what a fingerprint is. Good science is a powerful tool for a jury to grasp,” Birtwell said. “Television brought a new set of rules to the process; people don’t want to rely on the spoken word from a person. They want the science portion; that is tangible.”

Pieces of green masking tape, pinned on all four corners, lay sticky-side up in a rectangular Petri dish-like container. A black dusty powder thinly coats the adhesive on the tape, revealing small circular curves that get larger toward the edges — the outline of fingerprints. The fingerprints belong to criminals who taped up hostages in a robbery. It sounds like something from “Law and Order” creator Dick Wolf, but this investigation is much closer to home, securely locked inside the BCI unit in Plymouth.

Last year, the Plymouth BCI did more than 10,000 forensic crime scene investigations. Behind every crime and accident in Plymouth County, and in some cases beyond, the BCI unit investigates the evidence and provides behind-the-scenes support to the local police departments. Plymouth BCI also assists law enforcement agencies outside the county such as the State Police, FBI, Barnstable County, Norfolk County and Bristol County.

“We try and keep out of the limelight. It is more important we do our job and give credit where credit is due — the local police departments,” BCI Capt. Scott Petersen said. “We are a support agency designed to support local law enforcement municipalities.”

Foley is one of only five certified fingerprint experts in New England. He is also certified in handwriting analysis, given many lectures on fingerprint investigation and testified in major crime cases.

“We have the best, most technically advanced equipment out there, and together with the human element, Bob provides nationally renowned expertise to the agency,” Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald said.

In an era, when criminals are trying to cut or burn off their fingerprints, McDonald said fingerprint identification is a huge tool in identifying someone claiming to be someone else. Fingerprints have helped turn routine traffic stops into the apprehension of a suspect in a murder from another state or country.

One of the primary tools used in investigating a crime scene is the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which currently has more than 200,000 criminals on file. The system scans more than 200,000 fingerprints, on 10 fingers for each print deposit, and makes a match within 20 seconds, Foley said. A fingerprint generally needs at least eight points of match, but Foley said the standard is between 10 to 12 points. Although everything is matched by computer database, Foley said it is very important that a human eye verify every print for accuracy.

“No other person can have those fingerprints,” Foley said. “You can identify a person is John Doe verified by a fingerprint; a person can be cleared by a fingerprint.”

The BCI unit is much more than fingerprint analysis; the unit also consists of crime lab investigations, video imaging, K-9, roadside and accident crime investigators and HEAT (High Technology Evidence Analysis Team). The HEAT portion of BCI was responsible for capturing several sexual predators in 2006 during Operation Trenchcoat.

The HEAT office, filled with seized computers and a wall featuring Trenchcoat predators like former Plymouth Selectman Sean Dodgson, resembles an office for a computer repair technician. Undercover HEAT investigators go online posing as children, and Petersen said, like any crime scene, preserving the evidence is crucial. With one wrong move, everything captured on the computer’s hard drive can be lost. To prosecute an Internet predator, the physical evidence is hidden in bytes and coding.

“There are things that can destroy a case: losing evidence, destroying evidence and breaking or contaminating evidence,” Foley said.

Across the hall from high-tech computer scanners and a database of criminals, sealed brown paper bags, dust clouds of black soot and large blush brushes provide the physical pudding for the digital match. The BCI unit evolved from black-and-white still photos to digital images and inky fingerprints to scanned finger imprints, yet without the basics of crime lab, the technology is nonexistent.