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Clipped from The Knoxville News-Sentinel
November 23, 2002

Fingerprint Fuss Talks Debated    

By Don Jacobs

KY - City and County officials fussing over the costs of fingerprinting criminal suspects agreed to meet next week to resolve the issue that has put the public at risk.

Now Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison and Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith must agree if their meeting will be in private or public.

At stake, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, is the public safety.

Hutchison suggested a Wednesday meeting in his office that wouldn't end until an agreement was reached, even if it means the men sharing a "Thanksgiving dinner sent up from the jail." The meeting, however, would be "in private."

Keith responded Friday with a note agreeing to the Wednesday meeting, but with their meeting held in public. Keith wrote that "because these issues affect elected officials, law departments and finance departments, as well as the public at large, I would prefer to meet in a public setting."

The public bickering about an issue that the TBI says can have disastrous ramifications on a national scale started with a routine request.

Earlier this month, the TBI was asked by a Knox County court to check a man's criminal history to determine if he was eligible for pre-trial diversion, said David Bolme, information systems director for the TBI. As the state repository for fingerprints of accused people and their criminal histories, the TBI in Nashville gets numerous requests for such record checks.

In this instance, however, Bolme said the TBI was asked to check for a specific charge so the court could determine if the man should be denied pre-trial diversion. Diversion would allow the accused person to have the charge expunged upon completion of probation.

"We started looking for the charge and couldn't find it," Bolme said. "I contacted the Sheriff's Department about that charge and that sent us down this road."

When Bolme got further information from the Knox County Sheriff's Office about the charge, he learned the Sheriff's Office had been treating charges filed by the Knoxville Police Department different than those filed by any other law enforcement agency.

Bolme determined that in September, the Sheriff's Office, which operates all the jails, stopped including the criminal charges with fingerprints for people arrested by city police. Complete information was filed on suspects charged by the Sheriff's Office, the University of Tennessee Police Department, the TBI and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Without proper documentation on each person arrested by the city, the TBI wasn't placing those suspects and charges into its statewide database. That database also is accessed by the FBI.

The net result is that there was no record of charges placed against people arrested by city officers, leaving felons free to buy guns, obtain gun permits, drive school buses and get jobs at day care centers.

The Police Department estimates the arrests of about 3,000 people have not been logged in the TBI database since Hutchison stopped sending the TBI complete information.

Hutchison said the city must pay $25 for each person fingerprinted by the Sheriff's Office or make its own arrangements to get the fingerprint information to the TBI.

But few sheriffs across the state charge police departments for fingerprinting, and one who does said the $25 fee is steep. Keith estimated that fee would cost Knoxville taxpayers about $250,000 each year.

Washington County Sheriff Fred Phillips said a maintenance contract on his electronic fingerprint system costs about $10,000 annually. Because the Johnson City Police Department makes about 60 percent of all arrests in Washington County, Phillips charges the city $6,000 a year.

With about 100 arrests made each month in Washington County, the $6,000 paid by Johnson City would average less than $10 for each fingerprinted suspect.

"The law says you can charge a maintenance fee, but you can't charge $25 for each one," Phillips said.

Tennessee laws seem to conflict on the issue, said Terry Hazard, criminal justice consultant for the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service. One law makes "the arresting agency" responsible for getting the fingerprints, he said, while another places the onus on "the booking agency, which hands it off to the sheriffs."

Across the state, Hazard said, sheriffs and police chiefs have reached different arrangements, with some cities paying a maintenance fee, and others getting the fingerprinting service free.

But none of those arrangements, he said, involve a set amount for each fingerprinted suspect. "All the ones I'm familiar with are a percentage of the operational costs," he said.

Sheriffs in Sevier and Blount counties do not charge the police departments in their counties for fingerprinting arrestees.

Computerized fingerprinting equipment in the early 1990s cost as much as $90,000, Hazard said. The cost of newer equipment has dropped to about $30,000.

When city officials across the state last year tried to get the law changed that allows a sheriff to charge a police department for fingerprinting, Phillips said he didn't oppose it. The Tennessee Sheriff's Association also didn't oppose changing the law.

"We didn't oppose it because the city residents already are paying for county services," said Phillips, who sits on the board of the Sheriff's Association.

The public strife between Hutchison and Keith comes as no surprise to Woody Troy. Troy in 1998 chaired a Working Together Team from a community action committee to hammer out a working agreement between the Police Department and Sheriff's Office.

After four years Troy gave up in frustration. Fingerprinting suspects was one of the points Troy tried to resolve with the two agencies.

"The chief really worked hard to get some sort of agreement with the sheriff on fingerprints and the computers," Troy said Friday. "The sheriff promised us he would work with us, but he never really did."

Copyright 2002 The Knoxville News-Sentinel

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