Ageless lines help put the finger on countless crooks

History of prints... police examination of fingerprints.
History of prints... police examination of fingerprints.
A 1788 anatomy textbook showing fingerprints.

A 1788 anatomy textbook showing fingerprints.

TWO days before Christmas in 1903, a Frenchman trying to rob a house in Potts Point made history.

When he grasped a third-floor window sash in a spare bedroom on Macleay Street to make good his escape, his 30-year-old fingers left prints in the dust.

John Miller, also known as John Hunter, became the first person in NSW to face court using fingerprints as proof of the crime.

The state's inaugural fingerprint bureau had opened under the leadership of Senior Sergeant Walter Henry Childs the year before when the Herald recorded the remarkable discovery that each unique fingerprint survived the ravages of age.

''This is a strange fact, more especially when it is remembered that time sadly alters almost all our features,'' the Herald reported in October 1903. ''There appears to be no permanency in the visible parts of the body except in those minute and hitherto disregarded ridges.''

More than a century later, Australia's national fingerprint database contains the identity of more than three million people and 44 million individual finger and palm prints.

Digital images, storage systems and fingerprint lifting processes now improve month to month.

The NSW Police will record the largest number of people identified through the unique, swirly ridges on their fingertips and palms this financial year.

The fingerprint operations branch - which for nearly 100 years produced images of crime scenes prints in the photographic dark room - reduced its backlog of unprocessed prints five-fold between March and June this year.

Sydney fingerprint zone commander Detective Senior Sergeant Damian Liddle said faster turnaround times put police in a stronger position to prosecute crimes, increased the chances of recovering stolen goods and allowed them to catch thieves more quickly. ''You … knock on the door the next day; they're probably wearing the same clothes,'' he said.

Fingerprint storage went digital just 11 years ago, allowing each fingerprint to be easily searched as a unique set of numbers.

A national, hard-copy database of fingerprints has existed since 1941, but it relied on impressions captured using printer's ink. ''Wet film'' processing took up to four weeks to make a match, giving thieves time to pawn their loot or skip town.

But while digital photography, along with laser scanning of fingers in police station charge rooms, has simplified and improved fingerprint analysis, the methods for collection still require the human touch.

The most common method for ''lifting'' fingerprints from a crime scene is powder and a digital photograph. But should a fingerprint be left in a tricky position, such as on the underside of a door handle, crime scene officers have to perform a ''sticky lift''. The distinctive impressions can be processed using superglue or chemicals designed specifically to detect the amino acids left in the print.

Within metropolitan Sydney alone the fingerprint unit processes, on average, between 800 and 1000 jobs each month. But, if the quiet achievers in the fingerprint branch have their way, the jobs will decline.

''Some of the [police area commands] have actually had a fall in the number of break and enters in a month. That's probably the biggest indicator,'' Acting Detective Inspector Wayne Miller, commander of the Scene of Crime Officer branch, said.