For Police, Cautionary Lessons from Sniper Case ; They're Prioritizing Links between Local and Federal Databases and Reexamining Communication Systems

Article excerpt

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. …