Benefits of a Regional AFIS
Written by Robert Horton   

Every U.S. state has had an Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), or at least participates in a multi-state consortium to share electronic fingerprint search and match capability. Despite the existence of these large state databases and the relatively recent existence of the FBI’s national repository, IAFIS, a county (or city) often utilizes a regional AFIS.

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Along with the desire to access the state AFIS (and the state’s ability to connect to the FBI), there are other motivations for a local or regional law enforcement agency to continue AFIS ownership.

Regional Control

The fact that there are already many small AFIS throughout the United States indicates that there are benefits as well as desires for regional control. While the definition of “regional control” may differ from place to place, the driving elements for a regionally controlled AFIS typically include:

  • Database composition
  • Business practices and work flow
  • Upgrades and access to the latest technology
  • Maintenance
  • Service
  • Politics

Database Composition

One important reason to maintain a separate regional AFIS is the fact that the state does not put all fingerprints into their database, or expunges records that a local agency needs. Despite arguments that merging a city or county AFIS into the state AFIS is cost effective and upgrades are easier to coordinate, agencies often maintain their own AFIS with the belief they have a better quality and more complete database. A better database means a greater chance of getting “hits”, thereby improving crime solving and public safety.

Because state agencies often limit the kinds of crimes that can be submitted to the state AFIS, a regional agency will argue that they may miss solving a crime. City and county databases sometimes include categories that may not be accepted by the state, such as:

  • Traffic charges
  • Minor misdemeanors
  • Elimination prints
  • Juveniles
  • Applicants
  • Civil charges
  • Officers’ prints
  • ICE holds
  • Illegal aliens

Without a regional AFIS, a county might not have the ability to store fingerprints of all county applicants. With the exception of police officer and school teacher applicants, a state may not retain applicant prints.

Another advantage is the ability to maintain and help manage fingerprint records required for juvenile programs. Without a regional AFIS, juvenile justice agencies would have to coordinate with the state when fingerprint records should not be retained and when they need to be updated.

A final argument for maintaining a regional AFIS database is the disaster recovery risk that comes with having all the state’s records in one database. Disaster risks include weather (hurricanes/tornados), brown-outs, black-outs, floods, and earthquakes.

A regional agency cannot just stop processing arrests if the connection to the state AFIS goes down. They need to know if an arrestee can be safely released back into the community, and to do this, the person needs to be run through an AFIS.

Business Practices and Work Flow

The state’s primary AFIS mission is tenprint identification whereas the regional agency’s mission is to solve crime. Even state-level AFIS managers agree that the best argument for a regional AFIS is solving crime and public safety.

There may be business practices or workflows a regional agency performs that they are not able to do as part of a state system. Even if these business practices or workflows are critical to a regional agency, a state may not be able to accommodate them.

Sometimes a region has a unique “crime flow” not addressed by a state system. The state’s AFIS “crime solving” workflow needs to match regional crime flow characteristics. The state may not be able to offer sufficient service to satisfy regional agency needs.

From a regional perspective, a county law enforcement agency may depend on custom business practices and workflows in conducting their day-to-day business. Based on a survey of numerous agencies with their own AFIS, specific workflows clearly offer many advantages, a few of which are outlined below.

1) Assist external agencies, including:

  • Corrections and rehabilitation department
  • District stations
  • State attorney’s office
  • Medical examiner’s office
  • Hospitals
  • Federal law enforcement agencies
  • The public with any matters of identity

These county agencies would have to modify or purchase additional AFIS equipment or workstations to submit fingerprints directly to the state’s system.

2) Swiftly resolve situations in which a wrong subject is arrested or fingerprinted at regional booking facilities. Fingerprint records can be quickly and positively identified with a regional AFIS.

3) Expand latent search submissions to other counties via current or future AFIS interoperability agreements. For example, Shelby County, Tenn. (where the city of Memphis is located) can cross-search the entire adjacent state of Arkansas (something that the state of Tennessee has not yet resolved to do). Both the National Institute of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology support AFIS interoperability of state, county, and city AFIS systems.

4) Process criminal registrants locally, providing regional agency staff the opportunity to correct errors prior to sending to the state AFIS or update the record via the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS).

Agencies also report that removing an existing regional AFIS would cause workflow disruptions, such as:

  • Criminal history information records in CJIS and fingerprint files in AFIS would have to be individually reviewed and verified to determine if a State Identification Number exists and that state information is the same as what is on file locally. Many CJIS and AFIS records are stored by criminal ID number or identifying serial number only.
  • All workflows and communications from city and county livescans and remote AFIS latent workstations would have to be redirected to the state.
  • If the state system is down and inmates cannot be positively identified electronically, agencies would not be able to do this manually either (via the older generation Henry method using inked prints). The corrections department would need to mail inked prints to the state. Having a regional AFIS and using a regional Criminal ID Number allows positive identification of inmates both electronically and manually (when necessary).
  • Bond hearings would be interrupted with no regional AFIS to generate and search a criminal ID number. Agencies would have to rely on the state to positively identify inmates for bond hearings.

Finally, a local agency often finds their AFIS response times are better. Searching a larger state database naturally requires more time to review a longer candidate list to find a “hit”. Some agencies wait more than six months after submitting evidence to the state. To compensate, counties may hire additional latent examiners of their own to examine, process, enter, and search latent evidence for their agencies because of the state’s backlog. Local agencies can make their communities safer by leveraging a regional AFIS.


While the state system can sometimes be more cost effective, a regional agency gives up control, becoming subordinate to the state and its schedule for future AFIS upgrades, improvements, and technology enhancements.

This dependency leaves a regional agency at the mercy of the state budget for upgrades, service, and maintenance. A regional agency may be better able to fund an upgrade, taking advantage of AFIS improvements and emerging technologies such as:

1) Major-case prints matching

2) Latent palm matching

3) Full palm-to-palm matching

4) 20-finger searching for greater accuracy

5) Multi-incident records rather than composite records for greater accuracy

6) Facial recognition to solve more crimes

7) Iris matching in local jails

In many situations, regional agencies are ahead of states in obtaining the latest technology needed to keep their communities safe.


Regional control can also mean better maintenance and service. A regional agency may need to be operational 24/7, whereas a state may not have the same requirement. If there is a system problem after a certain hour or on a weekend, there could be a significant delay before that problem is corrected. A regional agency cannot simply stop processing arrests if the state AFIS goes down. An arrestee needs to be identified in AFIS before release or the community is potentially at risk.


Politics and intra-state relationships can also play a role in the decision to acquire an AFIS. Sometimes there is a strained relationship between the state and local law enforcement or a feeling that the state is trying to control them. While state and local law enforcement are all under the same criminal justice umbrella, they can have different roles or missions.

Funding for upgrades may also become a political issue. A change of administration may call into question or even eliminate once-secure AFIS funding.

The State’s Perspective

A state may choose to implement its AFIS at the outset with remote workstations placed at local or county agencies. This allows the state to be in control of the AFIS and livescan submissions, and control any future upgrade path. This arrangement enables the state to promise that workstations will be properly maintained for local agencies.

States can generally argue that they have a larger database to search, giving remote agencies a greater chance of a “hit” and solving a crime. When state system costs are spread over multiple agencies, an agency can also enjoy considerable cost savings as a remote site. This argument may be tempered by the size of an agency. Larger cities like New York or Los Angeles have different needs and may be reluctant to give up the control afforded by their own AFIS.

Another argument against a regional AFIS is the fact that the state is mandated to collect and maintain a repository while local agencies are not. The local agency can therefore push this cost and responsibility on to the state. Most state agencies maintain a 24/7 operation whereas local agencies may not have sufficient identification staff to cover 24 hours, resulting in a gap in service at the regional level. In those cases, maintaining a repository is a burden to a local agency; if they move that burden to the state they can use staff and resources more productively.

States may also argue that improved technology and system stability allow less than 24/7 service and maintenance coverage and that implementing livescan capture has contributed to a higher-quality database. Some states also no longer limit the kinds of crimes or prints that can be submitted or put limits on the number of searches an agency can submit. They are also finding that “lights out” processing is proving to be very reliable.

Future Trends

Discussions surrounding “cloud computing” are growing as a possible solution to strained budgets.

Agencies may be open to “The Cloud” strategy as they learn how to meet CJIS security policies to manage risk and better understand how to control The Cloud locally.

In the future, we may see “identification as a service” where a vendor provides the identity information to an agency. This could be a transaction-based funding model, allowing an agency to normalize costs and avoid the funding struggle for an upgrade every 7 to 10 years.

With ever-present budget challenges, every upgrade will bring up the issue of maintaining a regional AFIS (and all of the benefits it provides), or passing that responsibility on to the state.

AFIS Ownership

While no two states are alike and law enforcement dynamics differ from state to state, the desire for local control is part of the fabric of law enforcement in the United States.

Agencies do not want to be disrupted by state or federal government service outages, nor wait for the state to adopt technology needed for safer communities. The agency with its own AFIS will have greater control over essential operational elements:

  • Fingers to search and rules of use
  • Case priorities
  • System reliability and response time
  • Hours of operation
  • Ability to maintain separate databases
  • System upgrades and new technology
  • Service and maintenance
  • Addition of other modalities such as face or mobile

Finally, a large percentage of regional crime is committed by local criminals; this alone should be a factor when considering local AFIS search.

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is the Director of Marketing and Communications for MorphoTrak.

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Court Case Update

FINGERPRINT EVIDENCE went through a nearly three-year ordeal in the New Hampshire court system, but eventually emerged unscathed. On April 4, 2008, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously reversed the decision of a lower court to exclude expert testimony regarding fingerprint evidence in the case of The State of New Hampshire v. Richard Langill. The case has been remanded back to the Rockingham County Superior Court.