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King County Sheriff: Why we should pass the fingerprint levy

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Automated fingerprinting has long been a crucial element in securing arrests for high-profile crimes in Western Washington. But this crime-fighting system is funded by a levy, and for the first time in decades, it looks like that levy may not pass.

“When officers across King County are taking fingerprints, those prints are submitted into that system,” Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht told The Jason Rantz Show. “It’s an electronic system that stores and interacts with systems across the United States, so we can compare and contrast fingerprints.”

Sheriff Johanknecht argues that there’s a public safety component, and that voting ‘no’ on the levy would be hurting an already underfunded operation.

The Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) includes more than 800,000 prints online. Proposition 1 is expected to cost homeowners 3.5 cents for every $1,000 of home value. For a $600,000 home, the annual cost would be about $21/year, reports KIRO 7.

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What would happen if people voted no?

“If people vote no we start to shut down the system that’s in place,” Sheriff Johanknecht said. “It goes into hibernation and the 115 staff members serving the 40 agencies in King County eventually will be out of work as we run out of money from the levy we’re working under now.”

“That’s the human factor,” she said. “The other side is the inability for us to do our jobs well. Those print checks will go to the state crime lab and fall down in priority.”

Passing the levy has rarely been controversial. But in addition to cost, some voters are wary of an amendment to the funding which would give money to conduct biometric research, potentially leading to the use of facial recognition technology.

“This addendum only talks about what might be possible in the future,” Sheriff Johanknecht said. “Our current system has no ability to do facial recognition, and there are no plans to do it. The only place it may come into — and this has nothing to do with the average citizen — is with those booking photos we have in multiple systems from different jails across King County.”

“There could be the potential to take those booking photos, and from surveillance footage that we recover legally at a crime scene, and try to match a face. That technology is down the road and there’s no indication that we’re ready to use that.”

Will the fingerprint levy pass?

The levy is in an interesting spot, since generally speaking, conservatives tend to be wary of levies, and yet this one concerns law enforcement. Progressives generally support local levies, but may be hesitant for one that relates to law enforcement and uses a technology that occasionally inspires distrust.

“I have some concern, and that’s why I stepped out to speak to communities about this,” Sheriff Johanknecht said. “This is an essential law enforcement function. Just since January, we’ve gotten 193 hits on repeat offenders for car theft.”

“And it’s personal to me. It goes back to 1989 when I took an investigation and did the finger printing at a rape scene. While it went passed the statute of limitations, AFIS eventually found a finger print match for that crime. Not having the system to match against prints that we take is really important.”

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