St. Louis acts to address wrongful arrests

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated.

The St. Louis Police Department has instituted a new mobile fingerprint identification system in its North, South and Central Area Stations, as well as at the St. Louis City Justice Center, to help avoid wrongful arrests, according to Chief Sam Dotson.

The new fingerprint technology was put into the stations after a series in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year maintaining that about 100 people had been arrested mistakenly over a seven-year period, serving a total of 2,000 days in jail.

Robert Patrick and Jennifer Mann, the Post-Dispatch reporters on the series, wrote that modern fingerprint identification could have prevented some wrongful arrests.

Among the cases cited in the series was one involving a city bus driver who was arrested in front of her crying children and jailed because her name was similar to another woman who had died months before. This was the result of a clerical error, but she lost her home, savings and her job, temporarily.

On March 4, without fanfare, the department launched its new Mobile Automated Fingerprint Identification System at its three area patrol stations and prisoner processing at the city’s downtown jail.  The mobile units allow police to take fingerprints on a small wireless scanning device that returns prompt results from the Missouri Highway Patrol and FBI fingerprint records. Dotson said a few mobile devices are being used by officers on patrol and more will be added so prints could be taken, on a voluntary basis, from persons at crime scenes, disasters and on the street.

Chief Dotson said he had been working on a new electronic fingerprint I.D. system even before the Post articles came out. Planning and pilot stages occurred prior to the stories and the system was fully implemented after publication, he said.

“People lie to us on occasion,” and use aliases,  he said. “We always want to make sure we know who we have,” and that means to check fingerprints “at the very front end of the incarceration process.”

While the Post and city disagree about the accuracy of some of the cases cited by the Post-Dispatch, mayoral aide Eddie Roth says improvements have been made and will continue to be made to reduce risks of error. Roth, a former police board president and Post editorial writer, has criticized the Post stories on Facebook, Twitter and in stories in GJR.

“The mis-identifications are rare. Our goal is to get to zero,” Roth said. “Our system is not perfect, but it is strong.” He said the reporters rightfully pursued an important cultural issue (wrongful arrests) but he didn’t think the stories were fair.  Roth thought the numbers of misidentifications were exaggerated, most of the cases were old and that reporters did not heed warnings that their research methods were flawed because they did not have access to all relevant records.

Patrick said the mayor’s office and circuit attorney mounted “a successful PR campaign” to downplay any harm done and “it changed the discussion to – is the story right?’

In one case the Post said a man was jailed when he had not been. A brother used the man’s name and it was the brother who was jailed. The Post corrected the mistake that had been based on city records that were incorrect. Patrick accepted the blame for not having interviewed the man.

The Board of Aldermen, state legislature, civil rights groups and many judges didn’t urge new rules to curb the wrongful arrest problem. The Post editorial page has been silent on it, though the paper’s editor Gilbert Bailon has strongly defended the stories. Lawyers are working on a federal class-action suit, but class certification initially was denied.