Dozens of criminal case files crowd Roy Michael Jones' desk, shelves and 10th-floor windowsill at Baltimore police headquarters, awaiting his well-trained eye to inspect one of the most telling of human signatures.
He studies fingerprint after fingerprint, but the stack of pending cases never seems to shrink. The crime lab where he works is 1,000 cases behind, worrying police officials who say that justice and the search for suspects can be dangerously delayed.
The backlog stems from a shortage of examiners that officials say is troubling police departments nationwide.
"You can't just pick these people off the street," said Ed Koch, director of the city's crime lab. "The numbers just aren't there."
Koch and other police officials stress that violent crimes, especially homicides, quickly get examiners' attention. But officials acknowledge the fingerprinting logjam is a potentially long-term problem that could make crime-solving - especially in burglaries and robberies - plod along for years.
The Baltimore lab receives fingerprints in 8,000 cases a year, some of which contain more than 100 potential prints to review. The lab takes about 21 days on average to review a case, Koch said - much slower than his goal of a 24-hour turnaround.
The unit has two certified examiners, including Jones, and a supervisor who also does examinations. Koch wanted to hire three more certified examiners, but advertisements placed in several forensic journals did not receive a single reply, he said.
As an alternative, Koch has promoted three crime lab technicians to examiner. But it will take two of them three years to earn certification and become proficient enough to testify about their analyses in court. The third has a year of training left.
The nationwide shortage of examiners springs from several factors. New technology has made it easier to match fingerprints and has eliminated entry-level jobs that were once proving grounds for future examiners. And even as the number of police officers has grown, generating more cases, the number of examiners hasn't increased as quickly.
Nationally, there are about 2,000 examiners, 675 of whom have been certified by an international forensics group, meeting the highest standards in the profession. (Certification requirements include three years of supervised work in a crime laboratory and several tests.)
"We haven't kept up with the need," said Susan Narveson, director of Phoenix's crime laboratory and president of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. "We never have the resources we think we need. Sometimes, priorities are in different places and balance isn't struck."
The understaffed Phoenix crime lab has a 6,000-case backlog, Narveson said. Crime labs in other states have similar problems. Closer to home, Anne Arundel County is battling a backlog of 600 burglary and theft cases while hiring off-duty Baltimore County examiners to help with the load.
Maryland State Police and police in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties say they do not have staffing problems or backlogs.
Other challenges face the profession besides staffing shortages.
In recent years, examiners have come under closer scrutiny in court proceedings, as defense attorneys attack the scientific validity of fingerprint identification.
In response, departments have begun requiring that new examiners hold college degrees that focus on science, further limiting the pool of potential applicants. (Baltimore police require all print examiners to be certified and to have college degrees.)
"There are not that many people getting trained and coming through the ranks to become qualified examiners," said Joe Polski, chief operating officer of the International Association for Identification, which certifies print examiners worldwide.
To help fix that problem, FBI officials and educators at the University of West Virginia set up a degree program in forensic science at the school's main campus in Morgantown. The program, which began in late 1998, has 200 students studying everything from blood splatters to DNA to fingerprinting.
Even with the degree, aspiring fingerprint examiners will need to spend lots of time in crime labs learning the trade from veterans like Jones, who's been at it for nearly 17 years.
Jones joined the force as a crime scene technician in 1978, a year after graduating from Western Maryland College with a degree in biology. He thought the job sounded like fun - and it was, racing from crime to crime, gathering evidence for detectives.
At the time, fingerprint examiners compared prints one-by-one to cards that had suspects' fingerprints. As the department began using computers to check fingerprints, Jones was promoted to examiner in 1985.
Since then, Jones has been carefully screening fingerprints collected by crime scene technicians and police officers, who usually dust surfaces at crime scenes with black powder and use transparent tape to lift fingerprints. To the naked eye, prints often look like black smudges. But Jones sees a different world, one of whorls and loops, ridges and dots.
One recent afternoon, he examined fingerprints taken from a carjacking in October. Technicians submitted 103 white cards with potential fingerprints.
Jones, who had been pecking away at the case for several months, sat at his cubicle and squinted at cards through a small magnifying glass. He found three that he could submit to the state computer system, which will check the prints against those of 1.6 million people on file and 90,000 from crime scenes.
The next day, the computer spat out dozens of potential matches, and Jones had to check each against the three he submitted. He got one "hit" - a match - which he passed along to the detective investigating the crime.
"It makes you feel good when a detective doesn't have anything on a case," said Jones, 46. "All of a sudden, I develop a suspect that the detective didn't know anything about."
Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.