Information Overload

Technology helps manage a mountain of information in D.C. sniper case.

by / December 2, 2002
As two snipers terrorized the Washington D.C. area last fall, law enforcement agencies from state, local and federal levels scrambled for any lead that might solve the case, employing some sophisticated technology in the process.

But this unusual case had the more than 1,000 officers assigned to the case swinging at curveballs, and like most cases, diligent police work with some critical help from the public eventually solved it. That's not to say the technology used here won't improve law enforcement in the future. Emerging technologies such as geographic profiling, ballistics information technology and secure networks that facilitate interoperability were used in this case and show promise for the future.

"Given what evidence there was, I thought the investigation was run about as well as could be expected and good use was made of the technology available," said Jay Siegel, professor of forensic science at Michigan State University.

Police used geographic profiling, hoping to nail down the snipers' residence. These types of crimes are usually committed within killers' "comfort zones," which are usually close to where they live.

Geographic profiling has been used in about 700 cases so far and has been credited with solving about 150. In this case, law enforcement called in Environmental Criminology Research Inc. to create an electronic map and mark the locations of the shootings. Based on that information, the profiling system uses a complex algorithm to calculate where the perpetrator is likely to live.

But in this case, the shooting sites became more dispersed; the shooters were transient, frustrating such efforts.

Law enforcement also used ballistics technology, which is also very new. The technology allowed law enforcement to match the shooters' weapon with crime scenes, but the ballistics information network contains relatively few ballistics images thus far.

The FBI's Law Enforcement Online (LEO) program was more useful. The FBI sets up a secure Web page for a "special interest group," such as the sniper investigation. In this case, the FBI set up command posts in six different counties, giving law enforcement in those counties the ability to send and receive information securely via the Internet.

"You can access all that information from anywhere you can get on the Internet," said Craig Sorum, unit chief and supervisory special agent of the LEO program. "To me, as a street agent, that's the cool part. You don't have to be physically in the command post to see what's going on."

All incoming e-mail is scanned for viruses, and LEO users must verify they are entitled to use the system. The system uses complicated passwords and virtual-private-network technology, which facilitates encrypted use of LEO through the Internet.

Even sensitive but unclassified information can be posted. "You can put up anything but classified information," Sorum said.

"It's an efficient, effective way to get out the information, whether it's terrorism, missing children or white collar scams, and at the same time, not tip off the media or bad guys on information that shouldn't be out there," he continued.

In the sniper case, it was information about the suspects' car that was dispersed through the media that solved the case.

"There's information that we want out there, and we give that to the news media," Sorum said. "Like when they found out about the car, tell everybody. Hey it's better to have 4 million people looking for it than 50 of us."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor