Government & Politics

Kansas police depend on vast fingerprint database. It could soon be at risk of failure

A system containing more than two million finger and palm prints used daily by law enforcement is at risk of failing if it’s not replaced, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation says.

A breakdown would threaten public safety, the agency warns.

Police couldn’t check the prints of criminal suspects. Child welfare workers couldn’t conduct background checks on potential foster parents.

“If the system is not replaced, there is a significant risk that it will fail,” Joe Mandala, the KBI’s chief information officer, told lawmakers this week. “A failure of this system would cripple criminal justice and public safety operations across the state, most directly at local law enforcement agencies.”

Kansas is the last state using the system, according to the KBI. Replacing it will cost $8 million, and lawmakers are demanding to know why they weren’t alerted more forcefully earlier.

The database, called the Automated Fingerprint Identification System or AFIS, has been in place since 2007 and is nearing obsolescence. MorphoTrack, which made it, will stop providing maintenance by 2025.

The Kansas system handles about 120,000 criminal requests and 60,000 non-criminal requests a year, according to the KBI.

On the criminal side, the fingerprints in the database can be searched against prints found at the scene of a crime. The prints can also be used to help identify people who have died.

The system also is used to conduct a variety of criminal background checks. People applying for visas, employees in adult care homes and individuals involved in child placement are all run through it.

“The risk to public safety is significant,” Mandala said.

The KBI briefed a legislative committee on the fingerprint system on Monday. Lawmakers appeared caught off guard by the urgency of the replacement.

Mandala responded that the KBI submitted a replacement plan in 2017 to state information technology officials.

He said the agency has included information about the need to replace the system for the past three years in a briefing book for lawmakers.

He also said the agency had requested a budget increase to pay for the project but the governor’s office hadn’t included the money in its spending recommendations.

“You guys didn’t think to raise the flag any higher when you weren’t getting any results since this is 2019?” Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican, asked Mandala.

Rep. Kyle Hoffman, a Coldwater Republican who chairs the committee, said “now all of a sudden we’re in this hurry up stage.”

The KBI now is conducting a feasibility study that is required before the project can go forward.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Laura Kelly said the study was ongoing when the budget was being developed last year.

“Governor Kelly is committed to keeping our communities safe and ensuring that law enforcement has the tools necessary to do their jobs. We look forward to working with the KBI and the legislature to determine the next steps for replacing the aging AFIS system,” spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Mandala also said the KBI discussed the project with the Legislature’s budget committees, but that he wasn’t part of those talks.

Rep. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat, said he didn’t recall hearing the system could fail.

“It didn’t come across as severe as this, let’s just say that,” Pittman said.

The KBI hopes to request proposals to replace the system this year. Replacement will take two years, Mandala said.

The fingerprint system is another example of Kansas’s aging information technology. More than half of the IT infrastructure used by state agencies is no longer supported by manufacturers.

State officials have warned that the old technology slows numerous services performed by government and experts say it can also pose a security risk.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.