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The Crime Fight

Posted by tothewire on January 31, 2009

The latest law-enforcement tools to battle a rising tide.


Over the last two decades, billions of dollars have been spent on new tools to fight crime in America. But the investment doesn’t seem to be making us safer. Clearance rates in homicide cases are sliding downwards; in some parts of the country, far more than half of those who murder make a clean getaway, according to FBI statistics. Three out of four robbers are never collared. Most rapists will never be captured. And almost every burglar—close to nine out of 10—dodges arrest. White-crime statistics are drearier still. Though two out of every three Americans have been the victim of a white-collar crime; 85 percent of victims don’t file reports with the authorities. An untold number may never even know they have been the victim of crimes such as stock manipulation, double billing for purchases, unnecessary home or auto repairs, embezzlement, or as evidenced by recent events, Ponzi schemes. And more and more white-collar criminals seem to see technology as the weapon of choice, according to the National White Collar Crime Center.

The market is rife with new technologies to combat crime. But the value of some of these products is hard to determine. Some police departments are installing costly gunshot audio equipment, which can detect shots fired and alert the police; the return on this investment appears to be minimal thus far. And U.S. cities are proceeding with plans to install tens of thousands of surveillance cameras despite a British Home Office report that all but dismisses the value of the cameras that cover the centers of most British towns and cities. A Scotland Yard official responsible for the surveillance program calls it “an utter fiasco.” Will the American public-safety establishment do a better job of implementation? It’s hard to tell.


New DNA testing technologies win favorable press for their precision, but as yet have been unable to dramatically boost clearance rates. To date, the technology has received better notices for vindicating the improperly convicted than for solving fresh crimes. One reason: the genetic markers of only a fraction of Americans are in databases, making matches difficult. That will change as the DNA of more arrestees is put on file. And as forensic evidence gathering and testing methods are improved, as those who probe crime scenes are better trained, and even tiny amounts of DNA can be collected and compared, more crimes will be solved using “touch” DNA says Dr. Robert Shaler of Penn State University. DNA will also allow the police to solve more property crimes, especially those committed by repeat offenders, a cohort that has been especially difficult to snare and is believed to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime, according to Dr. William Tafoya of the University of New Haven. Catching property criminals may also preempt their graduation to more serious offenses.

But even in the United Kingdom, which has the largest database in the world, police reportedly solve only 1 out of 300 crimes using DNA. So what will help cops improve their performance in the future?

Law enforcement officials increasingly believe that data mining will be a crucial crime-fighting technology in the years ahead, because of its ability to access a mother lode of hard-to-access information. New York’s police department has heralded the creation of its Real Time Crime Center, which promises to allow investigators access to billions of police and other public (as well as some private) records. Even as cops speed to some shootings, they are assembling a profile of victims and working up lists of possible suspects, along with a geographic suspect profile of the crime scene. The RTCC has been crucial to solving serious crimes by providing leads such as tattoos, nicknames and discontinued telephone numbers, and by helping cops link suspects and their victims—a major leap in establishing the tangential relationships that often exist in violent crimes.

The FBI, long bedeviled by poor computer capabilities, is struggling to develop a reliable way to improve the usability of the millions of “302’s” (reports documenting steps taken in an investigation, including interviews) that are currently warehoused, but are, as a practical matter, out of reach. The bureau’s success in solving this problem could have a ripple effect; police departments across the country will seek to replicate this technology if the FBI gets it right. The greatest frustration of the working investigator is the knowledge that mountains of inestimable information are buried in agency archives.

In the coming years, investigators will be able to use advanced snooping devices to track and listen in on suspects. Police will turn to sophisticated GPS devices placed on vehicles; at least one company is advertising a tracking chip that can be implanted on a person by firing it long-distance from a shotgun. Eavesdropping technology continues to improve; investigators are able to remotely plant bugs without having to break into a vehicle or residence to do so.

Of course, not all useful technological advances involve big-ticket items. Cops nationally are turning to Google Earth to scout out terrain before conducting raids or trailing suspects. In mid-January, Massachusetts police took advantage of law enforcement’s ability to better fix cell-phone locations to narrow down the geographic location where a kidnapper was believed to be holding a child. Using Google Maps, cops deduced that a motel was the likely locale. The police found the child at the motel, unharmed. Cops are also increasingly gathering information from places like YouTube, MySpace and LinkedIn. Toll records, ATM receipts, mass-transit smart cards, and text messages are already staples of investigation, and the predicted transition to a cashless society promises to provide the police with grand opportunities to track the movements of victims and offenders alike.

A big buzz has arisen over reports that functional MRI imaging might become a reliable lie detector—a tool that has long been elusive. Researchers are also readying voice identification analysis machines for market and efforts are also planned to create a national database of ballistics evidence. And the Xinhua news agency reports that Chinese police in Nanjing have launched a database that stores the body odor of 500 individuals. Police rely on purportedly trained canines to make olfactory comparisons. Professor Tafoya, a police futurist, calls this nascent “sniffer” technology a potential blockbuster for breaking cases.

Hope for any new technology is tempered by two major institutional obstacles plaguing law enforcement’s efforts. Crime-fighting in America is the domain of a notoriously territorial hodgepodge of thousands of agencies—which do not use uniform methods or tools. And, at a more primal level, those in possession of key information are often reluctant to share it.

Indeed, some criminologists worry that new technologies actually harm crime-fighting in some ways; the human detection skills that have always been so crucial to solving criminal plots may be atrophying, says Vernon Geberth, a former homicide commander with the New York Police Department in the Bronx, because so little contemporary communication occurs face to face. “We worked with nothing,” Geberth says, yet were still able to solve most homicides. Until new gadgets further prove their mettle, there’s no substitute for the old-fashioned smarts of a seasoned sleuth.

O’Donnell is a professor of police studies and law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

By Eugene O’donnell


6 Responses to “The Crime Fight”

  1. where’s the donur story? Now that’s news.And who was the other man? A passing Cro-Magnon?


  2. donut, dammit. Donut.


  3. Lawman2 said

    donut story was tothewires pick too!
    i wanna take a bite out of crime…lol


  4. nch said

    nice post broo


  5. Lawman2 said

    hey there nch! thanx~ http://newsgadgetinfo.blogspot.com/


  6. car trackers

    The Crime Fight « A Different Kind of Blog


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