A tough case to crack

How IT can, and cannot, aid law enforcement's search for a D.C.-area sniper

Technology has received a prominent role in the hunt for a sniper who has killed nine and wounded two in a two-week spree in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, but even technology experts say the case is most likely to be cracked by cops, not computers.

"This is a fairly low-tech kind of crime," said Jay Siegel, a forensic science professor at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice. "What's going to solve this crime is old-fashioned police work. It does not require a lot of technology."

Nevertheless, numerous government agencies at the federal, state and local levels turned to information technology as a tool to help catch the sniper. Last week, the Army was preparing to contribute high-tech reconnaissance planes to track a getaway vehicle if another shooting occurs.

Meanwhile, police in Montgomery County, Md., where the shootings began Oct. 2, are working with a Canadian company to develop a computer-generated geographic profile of the sniper, which is intended to identify the area in which a criminal lives based on the locations of his or her crimes.

The FBI is using its computerized Rapid Start Information Management System to comb a vast database of evidence, tips and old cases, searching for similarities, patterns and matches that might steer police to the sniper.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has searched its National Integrated Ballistics Information Network for digital images of bullets or shell casings for any that might match the bullet fragments recovered from the shooting victims and the single shell casing found near a middle school where a 13-year-old boy was wounded Oct. 7.

Maryland state troopers have increased their reliance on recently acquired handheld computers for retrieving information from the Maryland Interagency Law Enforcement System, the FBI's National Crime Information Center and databases containing information on vehicles and suspicious individuals.

Despite the array of high-tech tools, after more than two weeks of sporadic sniping attacks, police still had no suspect, no motive, no composite sketch of the sniper, no positive identification of the gun, no license plate number and only a vague description of a possible getaway van and a truck.

"In the current state of things, you probably won't see a large impact" on the sniper case from computer and technology systems, said David Epstein, director of scientific services at the National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo, Fla.

In some instances, the technology is too new to improve the chances of solving such cases. The ballistics information network, for example, "is still in the process of being rolled out," Epstein said. It contains relatively few ballistic images compared to the number of guns in circulation. Thus, finding a match for the sniper's weapon is highly unlikely, he said.

Early in the investigation, hope for a quick resolution was fueled by reports that the police were using geographic profiling to help locate the sniper's home.

With assistance from Environmental Criminology Research Inc., police created an electronic map that marked the location of each shooting. Based on that information, the profiling system used a complex algorithm to calculate where the sniper was likely to live. The procedure has been used in about 700 investigations and has been credited with helping solve about 150 of them, according to ECRI President Ian Laverty.

But in this case, days passed, shootings continued at sites more distant and dispersed, and the sniper remained at large. "What we usually find, having followed up on a lot of these cases, is that technology alone does not solve the crime — and it's not intended to," Laverty said.

The science of extracting useful information from raw crime data, as geographic profiling does, "is just getting out of its infancy," Siegel said. "We're just learning that we can learn a lot from data."

That's what the FBI is trying to do with its Rapid Start system, said FBI spokesman Barry Maddox. Agents feed data and thousands of tips collected at the shooting scenes into the system, which analyzes them and compares them with data culled from old cases. Rapid Start hunts for data matches, similarities and patterns, and alerts agents to information that might point to a perpetrator.

Rapid Start, which has existed for more than a decade, was used in the investigations into the Oklahoma City bombing and the terrorist attack on USS Cole in Yemen, according to the FBI. Maddox wouldn't say whether it has yielded useful results in the ongoing sniper investigation.

The system has substantial capabilities, according to Siegel. Yet, 15 days after the first shooting, he was surprised that police still had not located the sniper's van. In a case like this, he said, technology is no substitute for "basic police legwork."

In all, a dozen or more law enforcement agencies have been working on the case, and their ability to communicate and cooperate showed marked improvement since their previous joint efforts, when they responded to last September's terrorist attack on the Pentagon and the anthrax attacks a month later.

Montgomery County, for example, used a notification system put in place after Sept. 11 to send electronic messages to key officials in the county when the sniper attacks began. "They were able to mobilize their emergency operations center and their emergency operations processes," said John Cohen, president and chief executive officer of PSComm LLC, a consulting firm that advises government agencies on how to use technology.

Extraordinary coordination among local, state and federal authorities made it possible for police to swiftly seal the exit ramps and block lanes along 20 miles of Interstate 95 and nearby roadways south of Washington, D.C., after the eighth slaying, which occurred at a Virginia gas station during rush hour Oct. 11. But the massive hunt came up empty-handed.

Police hope for better results with the aid of an Army RC-7 Airborne Reconnaissance Low plane, a small, four- engine plane mainly used to hunt for drug smugglers in Latin America and monitor North Korean military activities. Packed with $17 million worth of electronic systems, including computer-enhanced long-range cameras and heat-seeking sensors, the plane can stay aloft for about 10 hours.

John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, dismissed the idea that the plane's infrared sensors might be able to spot the flash of a rifle muzzle. And although equipment such as the plane's moving target indicator "is good for telling you whether the North Korean army is crossing" the demilitarized zone, it is not capable of spotting a vehicle of a particular color and tracking it through traffic, he said.

The long-range camera might prove useful if the plane happens to be in the immediate area of a sniper attack, but it would be useless if the attack occurs miles away, he said.

"This stuff isn't easy," Epstein said.

Dibya Sarkar contributed to this article.

NEXT STORY: Senate passes cyber R&D funding

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