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The San Jose Police Department is thinking of getting out of the fingerprint business. As a result, a battle for millions of dollars in equipment and staffing, and has been quietly waged for months between the SJPD and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office over who should process criminal prints.
While the county operates the jails, San Jose currently has a unique $4.1 million agreement with the state, called Cal-ID, which allows the city to contract out booking and latent prints—those lifted from a crime-scene—for itself and 17 other South Bay cities and towns, including Campbell, Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Milpitas, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara.
In July, the San Jose Police Department—depleted by retirements and defections to other agencies amidst the city’s salary and pension cuts—saw its fingerprint backlog grow to an astounding 1,800-plus property-crime cases. Violent crimes such as assaults and homicides were given priority. Noticing the growing number of unresolved cases, and citing shoddy processing of prints handed over by SJPD, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office began lobbying county officials for control of all prints done during bookings, commonly called “10-prints.”
“We at the sheriff’s office are the custodian of record,” Sheriff Laurie Smith says. “It’s kind of a bad system if you ask me, that one person is creating the records and we have two full-time people doing nothing but fixing booking errors.”
San Jose Police Chief Chris Moore disagreed with the suggestion that his fingerprint division was incapable of fulfilling its duties.
“If they’re challenging the work ethic of our people, they’re way off base,” he says.
In 2011, the SJPD accumulated more than 7,700 latent prints, according to Tamara Baker, who oversees SJPD’s fingerprint division. While the division has 15 people on staff—five less than it should, Baker says—only two of those civilian cops are certified fingerprint examiners who can sign off for prints to be admissible in court.
Chief Moore admits his department has been overwhelmed as the ranks shrunk. This spring he reached out to the county, expressing interest in forming a hybrid model for fingerprint analysis with the crime lab at the District Attorney’s Office. “To me it makes perfect sense,” he says.
But Sheriff Smith, whose fingerprint division currently consists of two highly trained latent fingerprint experts and a couple of cross-checkers, says her office is better equipped to take over, at less cost.
“Not only do I think we could [take it over], I think we could do it a lot cheaper,” Smith says. “We know we could knock off $1 million easy”
The sheriff is no doubt proud of her two-man crew of Richard Reneau, the Sheriff’s Office fingerprint identification director, and Tim Fayle, a latent fingerprint examiner recently brought over from Australia. Reneau has more than 30 years of experience in fingerprint analysis, getting his start at J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in 1970.
“There’s no training going on here,” Smith says. “These people started in this field. These people didn’t start as a records clerk. This is their field, their education, their training—so it’s a little bit different.”
While handling a substantially lower load—about 100 cases a month for unincorporated areas and Cupertino, Saratoga, Los Altos Hills—the most notable achievement of the Sheriff’s Office fingerprint division came earlier this year. Smith says her team found a fingerprint in the Sierra LaMar disappearance case. LaMar, a 16-year-old girl from Morgan Hill, went missing in March. Her suspected kidnapper and killer, Antolin Garcia-Torres, is currently in custody.
“We hit a fingerprint on the Sierra LaMar case,” Smith said, “and because I’m just so sensitive about that case I came down and I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And they looked at me like I was crazy. You know, yes, it’s an identification.”
Moore admits that the SJPD won’t be able to continue its fingerprint program in its current state because of a recruiting drought, but he seems less than thrilled to give it away to Smith, who, sources close to the situation say, has aggressively pursued SJPD’s fingerprint business for longer than just this year.
“Realistically, the program is supposed to be self-sustaining, between the state and what the cities contribute,” Moore says. “But since we’re the biggest contributor, we also put a lot into it that’s not recovered.”
“I wouldn’t think of giving it up lightly at all. But since we’re not able to recruit fingerprint examiners easily, it may make sense [to give up 10-prints].”
San Jose Councilmember Don Rocha, an opponent of Mayor Chuck Reed’s pension reform efforts through Measure B, laid blame at the feet of city officials and the police chief for the increases in crime, which are reportedly up double-digits in nearly all categories compared to last year.
“The mayor and the police chief don’t want to admit that we have a problem,” Rocha says. “They don’t want to have that debate, because they don’t want to hear, ‘I told you so,’ and that they approached this whole issue [pension reform] the wrong way. They don’t want to hear it, and they don’t want the public to hear it.”
The county Board of Supervisors will have the final decision—whether the DA’s Office or the Sheriff’s Office assumes responsibility—and both Gary Graves, the county’s chief operating officer, and Police Chief Moore say a decision could come down as soon as the next few months.
“Everything is on the table at this point,” Graves says. “The city is recognizing at this point what has to be their core services, and in most cities the core service is not fingerprints.
“We’re investigating it, from an administration standpoint, both the DA crime lab and the Sheriff’s Office,” he continues. “There is sort of precedent for the crime lab to do fingerprints. The issue is really whether the crime lab is under jurisdiction of the DA. And we haven’t found too many instances where the DA is responsible for fingerprints.”