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NYPD latent print unit gains coveted accreditation

NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill, second from right, and

NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill, second from right, and other officers hold a certificate at a news conference Thursday held to announce that the Latent Print Section has received accreditation from the ANSI National Accreditation Board. Credit: Louis Lanzano

The NYPD's latent print unit, which analyses more than a million fingerprints a year, has been awarded the coveted accreditation of a key international forensics organization, an announcement met with pride Thursday by Police Commissioner James O'Neill and his top brass.

By winning the stamp of approval from the ANSI National Accreditation Board, the NYPD ended a 10-year quest for affirmation that its laboratory practices met or exceeded the board's standards.

Approval from the board, the largest accreditation body in North America, mainly has significance for the NYPD’s prestige in the world of law enforcement. The accreditation has no legal consequence and doesn’t affect the validity of any criminal investigation that used the latent print unit before the board's approval, said Deputy Chief Emanuel Katranakis, who supervises NYPD crime lab activities.

Latent prints are left by the oil from a suspect’s fingers or palms, as opposed to “patent” prints, which occur after a suspect touches another substance that then adheres to a surface, said a law enforcement expert. The unit analyzes, compares and identifies latent prints, as well as photographs, submitted by the police crime scene unit, evidence collection team, and other units. It has a staff of more than 50, the NYPD said.

The accreditation came a day after disclosure that the NYPD had over the last two years purged the fingerprints of juvenile offenders from a database it maintained, allegedly in violation of state law, according to The Legal Aid Society.

A Legal Aid spokesman said the latent print section had been the repository for those juvenile prints. A spokesman for the NYPD confirmed that late Thursday.

As far back as 2014, Legal Aid said in a statement, fingerprints of a juvenile client had been retained by the NYPD. That discovery triggered years of demands that such records be purged from police records. 

Chief NYPD legal counsel Ernest Hart, acknowledged Thursday that in at least five cases,  a juvenile’s fingerprints had been improperly retained.

The department developed new technology to fix the problem and as of mid-2018, all juvenile offender fingerprints, after being sent routinely to Albany for analysis, have been destroyed as required by law, Hart said. All prints, perhaps numbering in the thousands, retained before that period in 2018, were also destroyed last month, he said.

The entire NYPD crime lab, of which the latent print section is a part, gained accreditation years ago, O’Neill said.

“Importantly, as we worked to push violence down past historic lows, we always want to ensure that we are objectively and efficiently investigating and arresting the right people and the real drivers in crime,” O’Neill said in reference to the latent print section’s work.

O’Neill called the ANSI approval ”historic” and the end of a long journey for accreditation. Officials with the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based organization agreed.

“The achievement is not a small accomplishment," said Jill Spriggs of ANSI.

The work of the latent print unit began well before the examiners from ANSI arrived, meaning the NYPD had to have record keeping, security, testing and procedures in place before the examination, Spriggs said. 

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