The hunt for Christopher Dorner: Do reward offers help or hinder?

More than 1,000 tips have been received since the offer of a $1 million reward for information leading to the capture of former Los Angeles cop Christopher Dorner. 

Reed Saxon/AP
A digital billboard along Santa Monica Boulevard shows a 'wanted' alert for former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner, suspected in a spree of violence as part of a vendetta against law enforcement after being fired by the department.

With the hunt for Christopher Dorner, a former Los Angeles police officer suspected of three killings, in its second week, local officials have offered $1 million for information that could lead to his capture.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 1,000 tips have been received since the reward was announced Sunday afternoon, police officials said. Yet what is the likelihood that the offer of a reward will lead law enforcement officials to Mr. Dorner?

Offering such high rewards can help, but it tends to do more harm than good, says James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston.

“The problem is that it tends to create work for investigators, trying to figure out good leads from long shots,” Professor Fox says. “If someone has information that is valuable, they generally call it in even in the absence of a reward.”

There has been no specific research to show the effectiveness of high-priced rewards leading to arrests, says Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

“In effect, rewards like this get attention,” Professor McCrie says. “Certainly there are some people in society for whom this will be tipping inducement to pick up the phone, but nobody who follows this field is saying that this will lead to [Dorner’s] capture.”

In these high-profile cases, McCrie says, law enforcement officials want to show aggrieved families and communities the extent they are willing to go in order to bring the wanted person into custody.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said the $1 million reward is the largest ever offered in the Los Angels area, and the main reason for the high reward is to prevent further violence.

“Every day that Dorner is loose … an attack on either a uniformed police officer or a family of a police officer is likely,” Beck said at a press conference on Sunday. “That's why we rush to make this offer.”

As in the Dorner case, law enforcement agencies offer large rewards for high-profile criminals. Currently the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted list includes rewards ranging from $100,000 to $1 million.

The highest reward offered for a domestic fugitive – $2 million – was for James “Whitey” Bulger, a former Boston gangster who had been on the run since 1996.

He was arrested June 22, 2011, two days after the FBI had unleashed a nationwide publicity campaign that led to a tip about his whereabouts. Mr. Bulger’s trial is scheduled to begin in Boston in June. He is charged in connection with 19 murders.

A spokesman for the FBI in Boston said the office would not comment on Mr. Bulger’s case, but a Boston Globe investigative story reported that Anna Bjornsdottir, a former Miss Iceland 1974 and Bulger’s onetime neighbor in Santa Monica, Calif., received the reward.

In Bulger’s case, Fox says the publicity helped because the case was not fresh.

“If there hadn’t been a reward, would she have stayed silent?” he asks. “I can’t say it never works, but typically doesn’t do much good.”

The State Department also has a program that offers rewards for information on international terrorists. The Rewards for Justice program has paid more than $100 million to 70 people since the program began in 1984. Tips submitted to the program led to the 1995 capture of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, one of the main perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The location of Uday and Qusay Hussein, sons of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, garnered the largest payment to date – $30 million paid to one individual.

The $25 million reward for Osama bin Laden will most likely go uncollected. At the time of his killing, the White House said that no one source provided the specific location of bin Laden, but that investigators discovered his hiding spot after piecing information together from various sources.

McCrie says despite the high-profile reward cases, people report crime for more altruistic reasons – they are concerned members of the community.

“A reward is not necessary for the public to become energized and want to aid police in solving crime,” he says. “Many do it because they want to see crime stop.”

An unusual high-profile reward case is that of Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber.”

David Kaczynski, Ted Kaczynski’s brother, provided information to the FBI on his brother’s identity. David Kaczynski, who read a manifesto written by the bomber that the FBI released to the media, recognized the writing style and language as his brother’s.

Arrested in April 1996, Ted Kaczynski pleaded guilty to three fatal bombings and received four life sentences. 

In 1998, David collected the $1 million reward offered by the Justice Department and donated most of it to the families of his brother’s victims.

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