Fingerprint Fuss Talks
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
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
The public bickering about an issue that the TBI says can have
disastrous ramifications on a national scale started with a routine
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
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
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
"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
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
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."
2002 The Knoxville News-Sentinel