Protecting the Pudding

By Marta Roberts

Atherton, California, which has fewer than 10,000 residents, doesn't worry a lot about crime. From 2002-2003, there were fewer than 50 reports of vandalism--the highest category of crime in the city. Although the crime rate is low by most standards, police officers in Atherton face many of the same logistical challenges that confront departments twice their size. Securing the evidence room is one such challenge.

The department realized earlier this year that it needed to do more to meet that challenge. If, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding, they had to make sure no one made off with the bowl.

At the time, the procedures were such that two officers were authorized to enter the evidence room, and they were required to sign in each time they accessed the secured area. The door to the room was protected by a lock and key, but no one monitored the room to ensure that the two authorized personnel were the only people going in and out. If an officer forgot to sign in, there was no way to know when the room had been breached.

Without a method for ensuring that the room was properly secured, the department was fearful that it would be vulnerable to chain-of-custody disputes, which could either damage or nullify evidence gathered in an investigation. The department decided to move the evidence room into a new building "to clean it up and manage it better," police officer Sherman Hall says.

In anticipation of the move, the department began evaluating a biometric solution, which would solve the logging and access problem. Several products were evaluated, but many were cost prohibitive. Eventually, Hall says they decided to implement a thumbprint reader by Count Me In of Mount Prospect, Illinois.

According to Hall, the reader had a low price and the department was excited at the prospect of including a high-technology solution. Another advantage was that the reader automatically logged the date and time the user entered the room, eliminating the chain-of-custody problem.

"With this, there's no way of getting in without putting your thumb on the reader," Hall says.

To access the area, the user places his or her thumb on the reader, which then compares the print to its database. If an unauthorized person attempts to use the reader, it will respond by asking that person to place a thumb on the reader again; if a match of the print is not found in the database, the person is not given access.

The system was originally developed for use in the childcare business after the company's founder, a programmer turned day-care provider, was alarmed by the danger posed by unauthorized visitors. He decided to develop a tool that would allow parents access to pick up their children, while keeping the center secure.

Today the company's bread and butter are small and medium-size businesses, childcare centers, and police departments. The company has made a conscious effort to price the product so that small and midsized businesses can afford it, says Katz. The entire system runs approximately $810. The system uses two independent fingerprint recognition engines--licensed for use by Count Me In--to scrutinize the templates, which are then statistically analyzed using a proprietary algorithm developed by Katz's father. The system includes a 30-day, money-back guarantee, 90-day phone support, free logging software, and upgrades.

Hall was in charge of installing the system in Atherton, and he says the process was simple. Using a standard Windows-based application, Hall installed the Count Me In software on an older computer that ran Windows 98 and had a USB port. The officer then used the software to create the thumb templates by placing the authorized person's thumb on the reader six times to ensure precise recording.

Hall says he could have chosen to use a finger or multiple fingers instead of the thumb. He says he chose the thumb for no particular reason, but jokes that he probably chose it subconsciously because police officers are good at taking thumbprints.

Because Hall did the software installation and a public works crew performed the physical installation, the cost to the department was negligible. The only charge was the reader.

The department has been using the reader for more than six months, and Hall says that when the system was first installed several unauthorized officers placed their thumbs on the reader out of curiosity and were denied access to the restricted area. Before implementing the system, Hall tested it by registering his thumb with the system. Once he was assured that the system worked, he removed his template and he is now unable to enter the restricted area.

Because only two officers use the reader, traffic has not been a problem for the police department. But Hall notes that because the reader takes a few seconds to process the print, it probably would not be a good choice for high-traffic areas where congestion could be a problem.

The solution has been perfect for the department, however. "It gave us what we needed," Hall says, "security, a log of who came in and out, and demonstrated, proven controlled access to this sensitive area."

(For more information: Count Me In sales department: 800/958-8779; e-mail:

--By Marta Roberts, staff editor at Security Management



The Magazine — Past Issues


Beyond Print

SM Online

See all the latest links and resources that supplement the current issue of Security Management magazine.