For years, the New York Police Department illegally maintained a database containing the fingerprints of thousands of children charged as juvenile delinquents–in direct violation of state law mandating that police destroy these records after turning them over to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. When lawyers representing some of those youths discovered the violation, the police department dragged its feet, at first denying but eventually admitting that it was retaining prints it was supposed to have destroyed. Since 2015, attorneys with the Legal Aid Society, which represents the majority of youths charged in New York City family courts, had been locked in a battle with the police department over retention of the fingerprint records of children under the age of 16. The NYPD did not answer questions from The Intercept about its handling of the records, but according to Legal Aid, the police department confirmed to the organization last week that the database had been destroyed. To date, the department has made no public admission of wrongdoing, nor has it notified the thousands of people it impacted, although it has changed its fingerprint retention practices following Legal Aid’s probing. “The NYPD can confirm that the department destroys juvenile delinquent fingerprints after the prints have been transmitted to DCJS,” a police spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Intercept.
Still, the way the department handled the process–resisting transparency and stalling even after being threatened with legal action–raises concerns about how police handle a growing number of databases of personal information, including DNA and data obtained through facial recognition technology. As The Intercept has reported extensively, the NYPD also maintains a secretive and controversial “gang database,” which labels thousands of unsuspecting New Yorkers–almost all black or Latino youth–as “gang members” based on a set of broad and arbitrary criteria. The fact that police were able to violate the law around juvenile fingerprints for years without consequence underscores the need for greater transparency and accountability, which critics say can only come from independent oversight of the department.
It’s unclear how long the NYPD was illegally retaining these fingerprints, but the report says the state has been using the Automated Fingerprint Identification System since 1989, “and laws protecting juvenile delinquent records have been in place since at least 1977.” Legal Aid lawyers estimate that tens of thousands of juveniles could have had their fingerprints illegally retained by police.