High-Tech Investigative Tools Get a Push in Search of Washington-Area Sniper


Police agencies are using every technological resource possible in the hunt for the Washington-area sniper who has killed nine people. Authorities are analyzing images from video cameras mounted at gas stations and shopping centers where shootings have occurred, reports USA Today.

In addition, a federal computer database has quickly established that slugs recovered from several crime scenes were fired by the same rifle. Crime mapping and psychology are profiling where a suspect may live and what personal demons are driving him.

But the available methods haven’t caught the sniper yet. And that, criminologists say, points up the need to step up development of scientific tools to combat future menaces to public safety. “This case is going to cause a big push for research and for implementation of new technologies,” says Cecil Greek, an associate professor of criminology at Florida State University. “The public is saying that we really have to stop this type of crime and therefore that we should use every technology at our disposal, even those that have been considered somewhat invasive, such as surveillance.”

Authorities say video cameras could play a bigger role in spotting the sniper, depending on where he goes. Since the early 1990s, more than 2 million surveillance cameras have been installed at ATMs and convenience stores, and at traffic signals and on high-crime streets in more than 100 cities.

If the sniper shoots in downtown Washington, he’s likely to be seen by police monitoring hundreds of government cameras aimed at streets, subways and federal buildings. Downtown Baltimore has 64 cameras that have cut street crime up to 15 percent, according to the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a business group.

The Washington area is the home of the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and respected state crime labs in Virginia and Maryland. “It is the hub of forensics,” says Susan Narveson, director of the Phoenix police crime lab and president of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors. “They have available the very best there is in investigative technology.”

Other tools being shaped for the future don’t quite have the sci-fi sweep of Minority Report, the recent movie in which Tom Cruise plays a Washington detective in 2054 who solves murders before they happen. But concepts are promising. Measures include: Spy satellites; scanners; countersniper systems; devices using radar, X-rays and other methods to spot a suspect or a weapon behind a building’s walls; and the controversial “brain fingerprinting,” in which police show a suspect a crime-scene photo while he’s hooked up to scalp sensors that allegedly can tell whether he’s seen the place before.

Better communication among law enforcement agencies is “less glamorous but absolutely paramount” in terror incidents, says Richard Chace, spokesman for the Security Industry Association (SIA). Different agencies use a host of radio frequencies. If a street cop could send a pager or cellphone message that everyone could read at once, many agencies could converge on a crime location, he says.Technology is no panacea, at least not now, he says.

Chace predicts the sniper case “is going to be broken by dumb luck—the person slipping up, or eyewitnesses.”

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