For police, cautionary lessons from sniper case

They're prioritizing links between local and federal databases and reexamining communication systems.

By standards of most serial-killer investigations, Washington's sniper case, now entering the prosecutorial phase, was a stunning success: It ended in arrests, while many never do.

But this massive, three-week manhunt at the edges of the nation's capital also involved more resources than any local murder case ever. And many worry that it sent a message to terrorists that there are less complicated ways to attack a region than to fly planes into buildings.

That's why the postincident debriefings now going on in the local police departments and state and federal agencies that worked this case are more than paper-pushing exercises. Several cautionary lessons are already emerging:

From the start, the fast pace of these killings and the constantly shifting crime scenes placed a huge strain on this investigation and the interagency task force that formed to conduct it. Tip lines set up after the first shootings could never keep up with the calls.

"We had no idea how many calls were coming through. The tip lines were always busy," says Capt. Nancy Demme with the Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD), which took the lead in the investigation.

In response, the Federal Bureau of Investigation offered to organize a 24-hour tip line out of its Washington office. By the time the line shut down Monday, it had logged some 140,000 calls, requiring 75 agents to cover phones on one afternoon shift.

"What this case shows is that no department as all the resources, all the facts, all the expertise it takes to break such a case. We work best when we work together," says Joseph Samuels, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of police in Richmond, Calif.

As the crime spree spread, other federal, state, and local agencies joined the investigation, and problems surfaced as to how to communicate. For example, a "10-50" in Montgomery County meant "officer in trouble," but for Maryland state police it signaled "traffic accident."

"One of the first things we had to do is make sure everybody used plain language to talk to each other," says Sgt. Bruce Blaire, who managed communications for the MCPD.

Still, the investigation caught an early break in terms of communicating: The MCPD was nearing the end of an eight-year, $130 million upgrade of its communications, including mobile computers and a new voice radio system. The new radios had not yet been distributed to the force, so 130 were available to distribute to other federal and state agencies in the task force. It meant that all members of the task force were using compatible radios from the start.

"If these attacks had come three months earlier, the radio system would not have been ready. Three months later, and we would have already cut over to the new system and have had none to give out," says Sergeant Blaire.

Few communities could do the same. Despite constant calls for "interoperability" since the 9/11 attacks, it's still rare for police departments to be able to communicate with one another, federal agents, or other first responders in a community.

"In virtually every major city and county in the United States, no interoperable communications systems exists to support police, fire departments, and county, state, and federal response personnel during a major emergency," concludes a new report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, chaired by former Sens. Gary Hart of Colorado and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire. They recommended setting up 24-hour operations centers in each state to link local and federal databases.

The lack of such a link is emerging as a key feature of the case. Specifically, a fingerprint from a crime scene in Montgomery, Ala., was a big break in the D.C. investigation. But the print took weeks to surface, because Alabama is one of 31 states not hooked up to the FBI fingerprint database. Alabama was about to put the print in the mail when federal agents showed up looking for it.

"Since 9/11, and especially since this case has been in the news, we have seen some states in the last few weeks, including Alabama, contact us to see what's involved in getting connected with us electronically," says Steve Fischer, FBI spokesman at the Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, W.Va.

One of the toughest issues raised by the sniper case will be how to manage information in a 24/7 news cycle. Police welcomed the ability to use the news media to communicate with the snipers. But they didn't appreciate the constant speculation on the investigation, or the fact that outside experts – with no access to evidence – were releasing their own profiles. Police worried that witnesses may not have come forward with information in this case, because some TV profilers led them to believe the suspects would be white.

"When the news media couldn't get a competent person to comment, they would go to people who were not," says Robert Ressler, a former FBI profiler who helped define the field of profiling. He now directs Forensic Behavioral Services International in Spotsylvania, Va.

"When you have a case that attracts the attention of the world, there is no way the news media will sit back and say nothing," says Peter Smerick, a former FBI profiler with the Academy Group in Manassas, Va., whose members do not comment on ongoing investigations.

"We feel," he adds, "that injecting ourselves into an investigation without having all the facts is not in the best interests of the investigation or justice."

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