- By Sara Michael
- Mar 30, 2003
The technology system behind the Washington, D.C., area sniper investigation was chosen for this year's Monticello award from among the winners of the Federal 100, which recognizes information technology professionals in government and industry who made an impact on the government IT community in 2002.
The Federal 100 judges believed that in providing high-tech tools to support the investigation, the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Technology Services fulfilled Thomas Jefferson's philosophy that "the care of human life and happiness...is the first and only legitimate object of good government."
As he usually did most mornings before heading to work, Premkumar Walekar was filling up his taxi with gas at the Mobil station in Aspen Hill, Md., shortly after 8 a.m. But on the morning of Oct. 3, 2002, an unknown sniper took aim and shot Walekar, killing him instantly.
Within minutes, hordes of police and media camera crews descended on the gas station and other street corners as the unknown assailant shot more victims. Walekar became the third of four people gunned down that morning next to major thruways in Montgomery County, Md., sending police scrambling to find the sniper or snipers and sending area residents into a panic.
During the next three weeks, as the snipers killed 10 people and injured three others throughout the Washington, D.C., region, schools kept students indoors during recess. Shoppers at strip malls ran from their cars to storefronts. Soccer practices were canceled. Gas station owners draped blue tarps from the roofs over gas pumps to protect customers filling up their cars.
But the siege ended relatively quickly because of good police work and the information technology that connected investigators and tracked leads. A primary player was the Montgomery County Department of Technology Services (DTS). Almost immediately, department officials began setting up the technology infrastructure — phone centers, databases and radio communications — to support what would become one of the nation's most intense manhunts.
Those who headed the technology support for the investigation were quick to credit the police officers in the field who tracked down leads and ultimately arrested sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad, 42, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18.
But personnel working behind the scenes believe technology helped speed the investigation, organize leads and keep all agencies on top of the latest developments, which helped close the case quickly.
That's not to say the technology worked flawlessly. The infrastructure had various glitches, mostly attributable to the speed with which it was set up, and the systems were not fully electronic, as some investigators might have liked. Still, whatever the problems, people close to the investigation say there is no doubt that the technology delivered.
"It's probably the fastest capture of any nationally recognized serial killer and most violent" killer, said Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the records division at the Montgomery County Police Department. "Although the technology isn't in the forefront, it is the cornerstone that unifies and facilitates effective police work."
Answering the Calls
During the search, the Montgomery County emergency communications center was deluged with 911 calls. People called the center hot line to report shootings, suspicious individuals and sightings of white trucks and vans that matched a description police broadcast to the public.
The center was overwhelmed by the number of calls, so DTS officials turned to the county's health and human services crisis hot line. But within minutes, the crisis hot line's eight lines were also overwhelmed, and officials realized they needed a better solution. Establishing and staffing a hot line in a large enough facility to handle the growing number of calls became DTS' first project.
Nearby in Rockville, Md., was the new 54,000-square-foot emergency communications center where computers and phone lines were set up for the public safety staff that was scheduled to move in later that fall. The phone lines were not turned on, but by the third day of the shootings, hot line staff were ushered in and the phones were activated.
Officials set up 25 lines, staffed by volunteers and retired police officers, to handle the more than 100 calls coming in each hour, Didone said. County officials bought 700 phones to equip the center, but answering machines were soon clogged and lines were busy. As the investigation became regional and other jurisdictions set up hot lines, officials saw the need to consolidate the lines into an 800 number.
Keeping up with the ever-increasing number of calls was the hardest task for DTS, said Montgomery County chief information officer Alisoun Moore. With each move, Max Stuckey, head of telephone services at DTS, had to reconfigure the PBX equipment used to set up private telephone networks, change the rollover functions for calls and adjust the voice mail. He was constantly reacting, Moore said.
"The volume escalated incredibly," she said. "We had to keep moving it."
The call center's final destination was the FBI headquarters in Washington where FBI agents staffed about 100 phone lines. There, they finally had the right amount of space and the right people answering calls coming into the 800 number.
During the three-week manhunt, police received about 100,000 calls, Didone said, and of those calls, 16,900 leads were assigned to investigators to check out. More than 9,600 leads were successfully completed, he said.
The Center of Command
The investigation expanded beyond Montgomery County borders as the shooters gunned down victims in other jurisdictions, and law enforcement needed a command center, separate from the call center, where federal, state and local officials could set up camp.
Officials rented space in an office building next door to the police headquarters in Rockville, eventually taking up almost three vacant floors for the joint operations center. Didone was responsible for managing the logistics of the center, overseeing daily operations and ensuring officials had adequate resources.
Moving into the office space meant running fiber-optic lines to access the county's wide-area network, making electrical adjustments to better manage the new equipment, setting up dish networks for cable television and installing more than 200 phone lines. From the building, the sniper task force received and processed tips and police managed their forces on the street.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tapped its Crisis Incident Management Response Team, a "fly-away kit" of equipment and personnel that responds to major incidents, and the team was "hooked into the headquarters as soon as I made the call," said Michael Bouchard, ATF special agent in charge in the Baltimore field division.
Each agency involved responded with different equipment or software. The ATF brought in a new $45,000 server to run crime analysis on site; the FBI brought the Rapid Start program for entering and processing leads; and Montgomery County contributed 250 new Dell Computer Corp. desktop computers.
Several systems ran mapping, data mining and information processing software. With the help of the county geographic information systems division, for example, police used maps of the shooting scenes to try to predict where the sniper or snipers would most likely take the next shot or to plan for street closing and checkpoints in the case of another shooting.
Police also used technology to run checks on possible suspects, such as gun owners, dishonorably discharged members of the military and even owners of white box trucks, Didone said. "Everybody used those systems," he said of the cross-agency cooperation. "Where you came from and what your preference was no longer was a factor. We became our own agency."
With more than 1,000 investigators from several law enforcement agencies working on the sniper investigation, officers needed a way to communicate and assign to an agency one of the thousands of calls coming into the emergency center.
Connecting investigators to one radio system was a crucial asset in the investigation. Previously, the FBI, ATF, state police and local police were all on incompatible systems.
But Montgomery County had a new 800 MHz radio communication system that the county was planning to install for its personnel. But when the shootings began in October, the deployment was pushed forward.
County officials immediately distributed about 120 of some 6,000 Motorola Inc. handheld and car-mounted radios that were being stored in a warehouse. Because the 800 MHz system had not been activated, Gene Cummins, chief of the Montgomery County communications maintenance network, faced the daunting task of patching the new radios into the old 490 MHz system.
"He was very creative in the solution," Moore said, activating the new system and connecting all investigators to one another and to the dispatch center.
When a call came in one day in October about suspicious individuals on the roof of Strawberry Knoll Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Md., for example, FBI agents, state helicopter and county patrols in the area heard the call over the radios and descended on the school, Cummins said.
The people turned out to be air conditioning maintenance workers, but the radios allowed the police to respond quickly and efficiently. "Rather than waste manpower, they were all talking to each other," Cummins said. "It frees up assets."
Smoothing Out the Bugs
Patching together a system to support the investigation wasn't free of problems.
One major obstacle was the lack of an automated system to take a call and follow it through to completion by an investigator. Staff answering the phones as well as officers were writing information down on pieces of paper, which were put in boxes and then manually entered it into a database, Didone said. There were 50 data entry operators recording information around the clock.
Dennis Rooney, director of DTS' telecommunications division, cited the need to improve the organization of the call center, focusing on who takes a call. "The issue is that you need to have a different type of person that answers the call" depending on the nature of the emergency, he said.
For most of the residents in the Washington area, and especially for the victims' families, technology played a background role. Greg Meyers, the brother of Dean Harold Meyers, who was gunned down Oct. 9 when he stopped for gas in Manassas, Va., said, "With all the technology we have, it was the residents that caught them. [Police] knew who they were looking for, but the truck driver had to find him." He was referring to a man at a rest stop in Frederick County, Md., who recognized the suspects' car and called police.
Still, Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan credits technology for "piecing things together and matching information that would have taken weeks and months to put together."
"The good police work, [and] the technology assisting the police work, saved lives," Duncan said.