Immersive training for new latent print examiners
Written by Marvin South   

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Immersive training pays off for new latent print examiners

THE ROOKIE EXAMINER was beginning to wilt under the pressure. He wanted to be certain the partial fingerprint he was examining


was a match to the suspect in custody, but with the long hours, the increasing workload, and the agency’s issues of budget cuts and time constraints, being certain was beginning to feel like a luxury. He shuddered at the thought of actually testifying in a court of law…

Somewhere else in the same state, another first-year examiner was also comparing a fingerprint to a suspect. She too was under budget and time constraints, but she had recently completed an intense training program that provided methods and techniques to help her quickly match or exclude prints with a greater degree of certainty—and to confidently explain her results in court.

This intense training is the Latent Print Examiner Training Program that is currently being funded for the third time by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and hosted by the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC). The training is geared toward entry-level examiner trainees, and it provides intense immersion in latent print examination.

This ten-week training program benefits agencies across the country. Over a span of nine months, typically from mid-fall through mid-summer, a class of around 15 participants makes five two-week trips to the NFSTC facility in Largo, Florida, for training in a number of topics that range from friction-ridge classification and palm-print techniques to digital imaging and courtroom testimony. In between sessions, the trainees work on extra-curricular assignments, network online with each other, and receive guidance from instructors using the NFSTC Online Learning System (NOLS).

The training consists of 11 courses that provide each participant with a total of 400 hours of classroom-based training plus 10 to 15 hours of online pre- and post-coursework for each course. Throughout the training program, each trainee completes a series of comparison practical exercises, each increasing in degree of difficulty. In all, each participant completes several thousand latent print comparisons. They also receive one-on-one feedback to confirm their analyses and to ensure they are seeing the same thing as their expert instructors.

“This program contains an intense curriculum designed to provide the participants with a reliable knowledge base, while at the same time developing and honing their skills and abilities,” said Senior Instructor John P. Black of Ron Smith and Associates, Inc., the agency that NFSTC partnered with to develop and present this unique latent print curriculum.

“This is accomplished by two-week periods of hands-on instruction (both lecture and practical exercises), separated by ‘off weeks’ in which participants complete additional assignments, with strict deadlines, to reinforce the material presented,” Black continued. “Trainees submit their results electronically in NOLS so that each instructor may evaluate the work product and provide individualized feedback. This is important because it permits more in-depth discussion between trainee and instructor than may sometimes be possible in a formal classroom setting. Instructors can also determine if a participant has truly grasped the material and is progressing, or if more work is needed in a particular area.”

Comprehensive Training in One Program

Prior to this comprehensive immersion training, examiner trainees had to search for single-unit courses offered at various agencies. Following that route, it could take them years to achieve the same level of knowledge.

Local law enforcement and forensic service agencies can use this training to stretch their funding because it is available at no cost to participants and their agencies through a grant from NIJ. Food and lodging expenses are also paid. Potential trainees do need to apply and pass a visual acuity assessment before being accepted into the program.

“The visual acuity assessment is completed online by the training candidate under the supervision of a proctor,” explained Eileen Fynan, the instructional services manager at NFSTC. “This assessment is designed to measure the ability to identify very specific criteria such as fine detail—including gradients, pattern similarities and differences. The results are evaluated by an independent panel of pattern evidence examiners and are used in part to determine acceptance into the training program.” To maintain fairness and privacy, “all candidate names and agency information are replaced with a unique code for evaluation purposes.”

The participants selected for the class receive instruction and guidance from a number of different instructors during the 11 courses of training. Throughout the program, trainees are given individual course assessments and must demonstrate 80-percent mastery of the material before progressing to the next course. At the end of the program, they are given a comprehensive program assessment.

Training Leads to Certification Success

The trainees also take a three-part mock certification exam based on the International Association for Identification (IAI) Certified Latent Print Examiner (CLPE) exam. Participants of a recently completed training program achieved average grades of 85.4 percent on the written assessment, 98.4 percent on pattern recognition, and 76.8 percent on comparisons (the most experience-based portion of the assessment). This is remarkable for these entry-level trainees, considering examiners must have two or more years of field experience before sitting for the IAI certification exams.

Jessica Heising, lead crime scene technician and latent print examiner for the Davenport (Iowa) Police Department, recently passed her IAI certification and had this to say about the program: “I was so excited to hear that I had passed the CLPE test. It is important for me to mention how pivotal the NIJ/NFSTC Latent Print Examiner program was in my success. Without this program, it would have been at least an additional year or two from now before I would have felt comfortable applying to take the test. The program provided me with a structured knowledge base for latent prints. Because of that, I am better able to serve my agency and community.”

Now another latent print examiner will be able to calmly perform her duties without worrying about growing workloads, budget cuts, or time constraints.

For more information

The third session of Latent Print Examiner Training will start in Fall 2011. Check the NFSTC website at and subscribe to the RSS feed to receive details about this or other training opportunities.

About the Author

Marvin South is a Communication Services Specialist with the National Forensic Science Technology Center.

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