U.S. Government Expands and Upgrades Belize's Automated Fingerprint Information System

In Belmopan today, the Belize Police Department welcomed a donation of new equipment from the US Embassy. But, it's not the usual vehicles or tactical equipment - this time it's a fingerprint system, complete with more than a dozen computers, scanners and an online server. We found out how it will make crime fighting countrywide far more efficient:...

Jules Vasquez reporting
It's called the AFIS technology - the Automated Fingerprint Identification System - and today I submitted my fingers to the test.

Police store prints in a vast and growing database - which can now be searched within minutes:

Hon. Elodio Aragon, Min. Of State - Home Affairs
"What makes this a milestone that in 2002 if I recall correctly we only had in system in the country - one system like this for the entire country and that was posted in Belize City. Since then in 2011 we had 7 systems up and today we got a new upgrade in terms of having a server - we having 14 systems now across this country. Therefore every police formation has this system right now as you see it here today."

Allen Whylie, Commissioner of Police
"All the district police head stations has a system including San Pedro and all these systems are now link to the central database at the police headquarters and that will allow for real-time whenever any scenes where prints may have been lifted to be entered at that district level and those officers the Scene of Crime Officers who are in the districts who operate the system would then be able to search the central data to see if there are any hits or matches."

But first police have to collect the prints at crime scenes:

Hon. Elodio Aragon, Min. Of State - Home Affairs
"And that gives police a serious edge and serious responsibility in terms of the Scenes of Crimes personnel countrywide to ensure they do their best to lift any prints off of any crime scene."

It's a long ways off from 20 years ago when Aragon first joined the police:

Hon. Elodio Aragon, Min. Of State - Home Affairs
"I remember way back when I first joined the police department I was first employed as a Scenes of Crime technician, to be a part of that new department, a new branch of the police department. We came from a department where we used to do latent prints, we had to roll people's finger and these things. And I'll tell you from what it is today and where we started we have come a long way. I remember way back then we use to at crime scenes we lift some prints, the fact is to compare those prints on the large scale of people who the database we had was a tremendous task, and now with the advent of technology these things are going to be processed quickly throughout the entire database."

Now, all that is done almost instantaneously and with precision.

Jules Vasquez, reporter
"Will more people end up in jail or more criminals because this equipment?"

Hon. Elodio Aragon
"Well definitely Jules, this is what I called an institutional capacity building of the Belize Police Department. This equipment gives the power to the police in terms of being able to lift a fingerprint, put it in the system and see if there is a hit and match and that gives the police department, not only a good lead, but more importantly forensic evidence that is irrefutable in court. Because in a time were we have witnesses who are reluctant to come forward, who are reluctant to go to court to give evidence - the way to go is forensic evidence."

And it's not just expensive new equipment - there is also training:

Adrienne Galanek, Chargé d'affaires - US Embassy
"But it's not just the acquisition we must look at the sustainability and maintenance of the equipment and that is where the training comes in. Two trainings were conducted at the Belize police Academy; 1 for the users of this equipment and equally as important another for train the trainers. The train the trainer's component teaches the individual how to maintain the systems."

And with the US footing the bill for this major upgrade - will they also have access to the database?:

Jules Vasquez
"The information that is stored in the server, will this be shared with the US?"

Hon. Elodio Aragon
"Not that I know of. As far as I know from the ministry standpoint of things, we have not sign any kind of agreement in that regard."

Jules Vasquez
"Are we sharing the material from our fingerprint database with the US?"

Allen Whylie, Commissioner of Police
"No, we have not shared anything. But I am certain that because all countries are looking in terms of how to enhance security, I am certain that that approached will be made to us and it is something that we would consider when that time comes."

The AFIS system has been used in Belize since 2002 - but this is the first time there is a full countrywide rollout on an interconnected network. Today's donation is valued at $430,000.00 USD

Channel 7