FBI Identification Division (1924)
To establish a national pool of fingerprint and arrest records, Congress established the FBI Identification Division in 1924 by combining records from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Leavenworth Penitentiary Bureau.
“The business of the Bureau is to aid police departments throughout the country in capturing and identifying criminals...a million fingerprints now in the Department of Justice records at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas...will be transferred to Washington. There the fingerprints will form the nucleus for the greatest collection of criminal traces that this Continent has ever enjoyed.”
Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s first director, 810,188 fingerprints were processed and added to the division’s database by 1932.
"When Director Hoover took over in 1924...local police and prisons had photographs and fingerprints on file, but were slow to exchange them. The small Federal fingerprint file had just been transferred from Leavenworth to Washington. Under Director Hoover, more than 7,000 law-enforcement agencies now voluntarily augment the Bureau's 5,000,000-print file at Washington by some 3,000 prints and photographs a day. In the U.S. the sender is notified within 48 hours if the print has a previous criminal record with the Bureau. One out of four has one."
"FBI men reassuringly point out that the bureau's file of 112,500,000 fingerprints (increasing at the rate of about two a second) [was] used in some 9,000 cases last year, [where] the FBI got 97.2% convictions. Certainly, in other hands, the FBI was a potential danger to every free citizen. It had not proved to be so in the hands of John Edgar Hoover."
Fictitious depiction of J. Edgar Hoover's proposal for a centralized fingerprint database, from director Clint Eastwood's 2011 film J. Edgar.
Photos and captions from the FBI's The Science of Fingerprints: Classification and Uses (1925).
The division made it possible for investigators to search nationally for possible matches, resulting in an increase in criminal identification.
“Through this centralization of records it is now possible for an officer to have available a positive source of information relative to the past activities of an individual in his custody.”
“Thousands of lawbreakers each year are made to face the consequences of their crimes because of tiny, almost indiscernible imprints carelessly left behind. The fleeing felon is tied inescapably to his lawless past by a small cardboard square bearing the inked impressions of his fingerprints. In this way, approximately 2,527 fugitives are identified each month.”
Photos and captions from the FBI's The Identification Division of the FBI: a brief outline of the history, the services, and the operating techniques of the world's greatest repository of fingerprints (1977).