Expertise in fingerprint identification

Thompson, M. B., Tangen, J. M., & McCarthy D. J. (2013). Expertise in fingerprint identification. Journal of Forensic Sciences. doi: 10.1111/1556-4029.12203 [PDF]


Although fingerprint experts have presented evidence in criminal courts for more than a century, there have been few scientific investigations of the human capacity to discriminate these patterns. A recent latent print matching experiment shows that qualified, court-practicing fingerprint experts are exceedingly accurate (and more conservative) compared with novices, but they do make errors. Here, a rationale for the design of this experiment is provided. We argue that fidelity, generalizability, and control must be balanced to answer important research questions; that the proficiency and competence of fingerprint examiners are best determined when experiments include highly similar print pairs, in a signal detection paradigm, where the ground truth is known; and that inferring from this experiment the statement “The error rate of fingerprint identification is 0.68%” would be unjustified. In closing, the ramifications of these findings for the future psychological study of forensic expertise and the implications for expert testimony and public policy are considered.