Nearly one week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, President George W. Bush promised Americans that "evildoer" Osama bin Laden would be hunted down like the outlaw he is. "I want justice," Bush vowed to millions of television viewers. "There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, `Wanted: Dead or Alive' All I want, and America wants, is [to see] him brought to justice."
Shortly afterward, the Justice Department placed a $25 million bounty on bin Laden. The Air Line Pilots Association and Air Transport Association added another $2 million to make it the single largest reward ever offered for a fugitive. The United States then dropped what appeared to be "Dead or Alive" posters of bin Laden in Afghanistan, while airing broadcasts worldwide to publicize the $27 million bounty. Even though this sum is equal to 10 percent of the U.S. humanitarian assistance targeted for Afghanistan this year, criminologists say it may have zero impact.
"It was a nice public-relations move for Bush to put the $25 million on bin Laden, but it is not going to have any effect because his supporters are ideology-driven," says Dennis Jay Kenney, a criminology professor at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of Organized Crime in America.
"It's done for a big splash and a headline," adds Gilbert Geis, a criminology professor at the University of California-Irvine. "It doesn't matter how much you offer because people generally are going to give them information anyway."
"Big money rarely talks," says Jeffrey Fryrear, executive director of the National Crime Prevention Institute at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "More money means more tips, but it also means more mismanagement and more room to mess it up. Offering rewards can be counterproductive."
Many in law enforcement despise rewards and complain that valuable resources are wasted to chase crackpot and false leads, says former homicide detective Steven Egger, now a criminologist at the University of Houston. "I hated it when rewards were offered when I was a detective. It brings out poor eyewitness testimony that has been frequently proved unreliable in court," he says. In fact, a majority of the 100-plus inmates found innocent through DNA testing while on death row were convicted wrongfully because of mistaken eyewitness testimony.
Offering cash incentives for information about alleged criminals hardly is a new approach. The IRS collects an additional $100 million from tax cheats annually by paying out to snitches anywhere from $2 million to $5 million. The FBI claims to have captured 140 suspects through its 53-year-old "Most Wanted" program as a result of offering millions in cash. And police recently nabbed the kidnappers of Elizabeth Smart, who was returned safely to her parents after the TV program America's Most Wanted aired the case again with a $250,000 reward.
Rewards paid by authorities date back to the Bible when Judas was paid 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. They were common in England in the 18th century when thieves were paid for police tips, and they continued to be popular in the Wild West where bounties routinely were offered and paid to gunmen such as Bob Ford, who for $10,000 shot the notorious outlaw Jesse James in the back on April 3, 1882. Today, rewards even are announced to try to throw off police or deceive the public as O.J. Simpson may have done when he offered $1 million to find the "real killers" of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
The United States isn't alone in offering financial incentives. For example, Saddam Hussein has offered a $14,000 reward for downing any U.S. or British jet patrolling the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. This followed offers of a $5,000 reward for any Iraqi air-defense unit that downs a hostile missile and $2,500 for any Iraqi citizen who arrests the captain of a hostile jet. …