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Originally published October 22, 2012 at 9:02 PM | Page modified October 23, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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$119M levy renewal would fund King County fingerprint ID system

King County Proposition No. 1 seeks $119 million over the next six years for the county's Automated Fingerprint Identification System, used by law enforcement in all cities and unincorporated areas in the county. The levy would collect 5.92 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, which would cost the owner of a $350,000 home about $21 next year.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For the fifth time since 1990, King County voters are being asked to renew a property-tax levy for an important crime-fighting tool.

King County Proposition No. 1 seeks $119 million over the next six years for the county's Automated Fingerprint Identification System, known as AFIS. That is $16.5 million more than the last AFIS levy, approved in 2006, which expires at the end of this year.

The levy would collect 5.92 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The owner of a $350,000 home in King County would pay about $21 next year under the proposal. AFIS is used by law-enforcement agencies in all of the county's cities and unincorporated areas.

Fingerprints and palm prints are the most common type of forensic evidence used in local crime-fighting, according to county Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg.

But Satterberg and others cannot specify how many arrests or convictions AFIS has produced. Local agencies don't keep such statistics. Not only would it require time and resources at different levels of the criminal-justice system, but it still would yield imperfect results, according to Diana Watkins, AFIS operations manager.

Prosecutors build their cases on multiple kinds of evidence, from eyewitness statements to fingerprints. It would be hard to determine whether a conviction was the direct result of fingerprint evidence.

"But, based on the 7,000 or so felony charges we file a year, the work that AFIS does in a significant number of cases assists us in gaining convictions," said Ian Goodhew, Satterberg's deputy chief of staff.

Levy proponents point to anecdotal evidence of AFIS' success.

A palmprint lifted from a dresser last year led to the identification, arrest and 25-year prison sentence of Jesse Ryan Gonzales for raping a 12-year old girl in her bedroom.

Prints taken from the trunk of a car helped convict the shooter in a Des Moines murder-for-hire plot made to look like a carjacking. Wilson Sayachack was sentenced to 25 years in prison in the case, along with accomplice Jon Ogden.

The vast majority of the levy funds, about $90 million, would go toward salaries and benefits for staff, with roughly one-quarter dedicated to the Seattle Police Department.

The program now has 134 employees, according to AFIS Manager Carol Gillespie. Under the levy plan, seven positions would be eliminated. Seattle police also would cut overtime, furniture and vehicle costs to trim program expenses.

Most of the AFIS staff are technicians, examiners and data specialists. Some go to crime scenes to find latent, or invisible, prints. Some collect prints at county jails. Others try to match prints, using computer technology, with records kept in databases locally and nationally.

AFIS operates 24 hours a day because police officers apprehend people around the clock and it's crucial to swiftly verify the identity of a suspect, either to detain a wanted person or to release an innocent one.

An estimated $11.5 million of the levy funds would be spent to replace the AFIS processing lab. The current lab is too small, requiring technicians to use extra safeguards to avoid cross-contamination of evidence; measures that could be avoided in a larger, better-designed space, says Gillespie, the AFIS manager.

The levy also allots $1.6 million for new handheld technology that allows police officers to collect fingerprints in the field and ascertain suspect identities in less than a minute.

There is no organized opposition to the levy. Seattle resident John Shackleford submitted a statement against the levy for the voter pamphlet. Shackleford argues that property taxes are too high and have increased at a time when ordinary citizens have had to economize. He points to even more taxes on the horizon for a new juvenile-justice center and possibly a new Seattle seawall.

The Municipal League Foundation says county government would have trouble funding AFIS if the levy were to fail.

The league notes, though, that some of its members would prefer to see AFIS financed by the county's general fund, rather than a new levy. Others might argue, the league adds, that the various law-enforcement agencies using AFIS should pay for it out of general government revenues. Still others might say similar services could be provided less expensively through the Washington State Patrol.

The State Patrol lab would be slower, though, according to Gillespie. It isn't staffed around the clock, she said, and the volume of the county's needs would cause a backlog.

The Municipal League agrees that AFIS offers better, quicker service than the State Patrol would. The league also notes that AFIS has been funded with levies for 26 years, which prohibits the county from taking money out of the AFIS budget to support other general-fund services.

For those reasons, the league recommends approval of this "successful regional tool."

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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