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Meet our Members in Forensics
Fingerprint Experts are one of these vital, niche professions, and three of them are based at the Hobart Police Station processing an endless stream of forensic exhibits to keep our justice system running smoothly.
We sat down with CPSU Members Peter Maczi and Tracey Tobin after the 21st International Symposium on the Forensic Sciences where forensic experts from around the world converged in Hobart.
Tracey: “There were about two days of fingerprint lectures and half of them were on new chemical techniques. There were a few new things coming out. Also useful were the case studies where you think, ‘I could use that in my job’. Around 800 people from nearly 30 countries attended, and even suppliers who make equipment like the superglue cabinet were there and it was good to talk to them face-to-face. It’s good being together with people from other states and countries and hear about what they’re doing, and if you could use that in your job.”
Peter attended the dinner at the Grand Chancellor and said it was a great chance to meet up with other scientists. “I met people I haven’t seen in years. I worked as an expert in Queensland and New South Wales for many years so met up with some old colleagues.”
Fingerprinting involves a range of duties, both in an out of the office.
Tracey: “We go out to crime scenes and powder for fingerprints. Also the people working at crime scenes gather the latent fingerprints that offenders might have left and bring them back to the office. We compare the fingerprints from the crime scene to the prints on our computer system. The computer does some of the work but we still have to look at it and see if it’s a match. Also, we go to the mortuary and fingerprint people for identification.”
Peter: “We go to court to give expert evidence, and we also process gaming, security and visa applicants.”
As you’d imagine, being a Fingerprint Expert means working with some pretty interesting equipment.
Peter: “The technology’s not too bad – it’s evolving. There’s always something new on the horizon. We try to keep abreast of technology but sometimes it comes down to dollars and cents.”
Tracey: “Years ago we had to manually go through every set of fingerprints but now we’ve got the NAFIS (National Automated Fingerprint Identification System) computer system that’s linked to all the other states. If someone gets fingerprinted in Queensland and moves to South Australia under a false name the system would match their prints in Queensland. Or if someone from Victoria commits burglaries in Tasmania we can still match those prints. So you can’t really go missing anywhere, in a sense, if you’ve had your fingerprints taken.”
The number of exhibits these experts see in a day is highly variable, with Tracey saying they might get somewhere between 20-30 ink sets coming in as well as 10-20 latent jobs like fingerprints from crime scenes.
Peter: “You can have a day where you only get a couple of exhibits or on a heavy day you might get 40-50 sets. If there’s a major crime that takes priority, we tend to drop everything and focus on those jobs.”
The time it takes to process fingerprints is highly variable depending on the technique used. Some techniques are very quick and can be on the system within an hour.
Peter: “But if you need to put something through the superglue tank, it could take a couple of days. Ninhydrin is another chemical we use – it could take up to a week to develop fingerprints. So how long the process takes depends entirely on the method you use.”
The superglue method uses the fumes from evaporating superglue to reveal prints on smooth and non-porous surfaces.
The job involves both individual and collaborative work.
Peter: “When making an identification we always have a second expert to corroborate the identification is correct – we have quality assurances in place to make sure no errors occur – so that usually involves two experts checking everything.”
Tracey: “In the lab you might need someone to help with an exhibit, and even in the office with the ink sets coming in – sometimes more than one person works on those.”
The role changed a while ago from a rotating shifts system to a Monday to Friday job but there are times where Peter or Tracey are called in on weekends to do a quick identification of someone. As Tracey said, “crime doesn’t stop outside 9-5”.
Both of these Fingerprint Experts are CPSU Members, and have been for quite a number of years. Tracey since 2005 and Peter since 2007.
Peter: “I’ve always liked unions. I believe they’re a necessary part of work. If you didn’t have unions, employers would just run right over the top of you.”
Tracey: “I joined up because there was only one other public servant and they were looking at leaving. So I didn’t want to be the only public servant in a workplace of police with the different awards we were on. If something happened I’d have no back-up or anyone to turn to or help me.”