Human matching performance of genuine crime scene latent fingerprints

Thompson, M. B., Tangen, J. M., & McCarthy, D. J. (2013). Human Matching Performance of Genuine Crime Scene Latent Fingerprints. Law and Human Behaviordoi: 10.1037/lhb0000051 [PDF]


There has been very little research into the nature and development of fingerprint matching expertise. Here we present the results of an experiment testing the claimed matching expertise of fingerprint examiners. Expert (n = 37), intermediate trainee (n = 8), new trainee (n = 9), and novice (n = 37) participants performed a fingerprint discrimination task involving genuine crime scene latent fingerprints, their matches, and highly similar distractors, in a signal detection paradigm. Results show that qualified, court-practicing fingerprint experts were exceedingly accurate compared with novices. Experts showed a conservative response bias, tending to err on the side of caution by making more errors of the sort that could allow a guilty person to escape detection than errors of the sort that could falsely incriminate an innocent person. The superior performance of experts was not simply a function of their ability to match prints, per se, but a result of their ability to identify the highly similar, but nonmatching fingerprints as such. Comparing these results with previous experiments, experts were even more conservative in their decision making when dealing with these genuine crime scene prints than when dealing with simulated crime scene prints, and this conservatism made them relatively less accurate overall. Intermediate trainees—despite their lack of qualification and average 3.5 years experience—performed about as accurately as qualified experts who had an average 17.5 years experience. New trainees—despite their 5-week, full-time training course or their 6 months experience—were not any better than novices at discriminating matching and similar nonmatching prints, they were just more conservative. Further research is required to determine the precise nature of fingerprint matching expertise and the factors that influence performance. The findings of this representative, lab-based experiment may have implications for the way fingerprint examiners testify in court, but what the findings mean for reasoning about expert performance in the wild is an open, empirical, and epistemological question.