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Why do latent fingerprint examiners differ in their conclusions?

NCJ Number
Forensic Science International Volume: 316 Dated: 2020
R. A. Hicklin; et al
Date Published

Since forensic latent print examiners usually, but not always, reproduce each other’s conclusion, the current study used  data from tests of experts conducting fingerprint comparisons to show the extent to which differing conclusions can be explained in terms of the images and in terms of the examiners.


Some images are particularly prone to disagreements or erroneous conclusions; the highest and lowest quality images generally result in unanimous conclusions. The variability among examiners can be seen as the effect of implicit individual decision thresholds, which this study demonstrates are measurable and differ substantially among examiners. This variation may reflect differences in skill, risk tolerance, or bias. Much of the remaining variability relates to inconsistency of the examiners themselves; borderline conclusions (i.e., close to individual decision thresholds) often were not repeated by the examiners themselves and tended to be completed more slowly and rated difficult. A few examiners have significantly higher error rates than most: aggregate error rates of many examiners are not necessarily representative of individual examiners. The use of a three-level conclusion scale does not precisely represent the underlying agreements and disagreements among examiners. The current study proposes a new method of quantifying examiner skill that would be appropriate for use in proficiency tests. These findings are operationally relevant to staffing, quality assurance, and disagreements among experts in court. (Publisher Abstract)