The system was rooted in the belief that some criminals’ methods were unique enough to serve as a kind of behavioral DNA — allowing identification based on how a person acted, rather than their genetic make-up.
By T. Christian Miller, ProPublica truthdig.com August 6, 2015
This story was co-published by ProPublica and The Atlantic.
QUANTICO, Va. — More than 30 years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a revolutionary computer system in a bomb shelter two floors beneath the cafeteria of its national academy. Dubbed the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or ViCAP, it was a database designed to help catch the nation’s most violent offenders by linking together unsolved crimes. A serial rapist wielding a favorite knife in one attack might be identified when he used the same knife elsewhere. The system was rooted in the belief that some criminals’ methods were unique enough to serve as a kind of behavioral DNA — allowing identification based on how a person acted, rather than their genetic make-up.
Equally as important was the idea that local law enforcement agencies needed a way to better communicate with each other. Savvy killers had attacked in different jurisdictions to exploit gaping holes in police cooperation. ViCAP’s “implementation could mean the prevention of countless murders and the prompt apprehension of violent criminals,” the late Sen. Arlen Specter wrote in a letter to the Justice Department endorsing the program’s creation.
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In the years since ViCAP was first conceived, data-mining has grown vastly more sophisticated, and computing power has become cheaper and more readily available. Corporations can link the food you purchase, the clothes you buy, and the websites you browse. The FBI can parse your emails, cellphone records and airline itineraries. In a world where everything is measured, data is ubiquitous — from the number of pieces of candy that a Marine hands out on patrol in Kandahar, to your heart rate as you walk up the stairs at work.
That’s what’s striking about ViCAP today: the paucity of information it contains. Only about 1,400 police agencies in the U.S., out of roughly 18,000, participate in the system. The database receives reports from far less than 1 percent of the violent crimes committed annually. It’s not even clear how many crimes the database has helped solve. The FBI does not release any figures. A review in the 1990s found it had linked only 33 crimes in 12 years.
Canadian authorities built on the original ViCAP framework to develop a modern and sophisticated system capable of identifying patterns and linking crimes. It has proven particularly successful at analyzing sexual-assault cases. But three decades and an estimated $30 million later, the FBI’s system remains stuck in the past, the John Henry of data mining. ViCAP was supposed to revolutionize American law enforcement. That revolution never came.
Few law enforcement officials dispute the potential of a system like ViCAP to help solve crimes. But the FBI has never delivered on its promise. In an agency with an $8.2 billion yearly budget, ViCAP receives around $800,000 a year to keep the system going. The ViCAP program has a staff of 12. Travel and training have been cut back in recent years. Last year, the program provided analytical assistance to local cops just 220 times. As a result, the program has done little to close the gap that prompted Congress to create it. Police agencies still don’t talk to each other on many occasions. Killers and rapists continue to escape arrest by exploiting that weakness. “The need is vital,” said Ritchie Martinez, the former president of the International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts. “But ViCAP is not filling it.”
Local cops say the system is confusing and cumbersome. Entering a single case into the database can take an hour and hits — where an unsolved crime is connected to a prior incident — are rare. False positives are common. Many also said the FBI does little to teach cops how to use the system. Training has dropped from a high of about 5,500 officers in 2012 to 1,200 last year.
“We don’t really use ViCAP,” said Jeff Jensen, a criminal analyst for the Phoenix Police Department with 15 years of experience. “It really is quite a chore.”
The FBI has contributed to the confusion by misrepresenting the system. On its website, the FBI says cases in its database are “continually compared” for matches as new cases are entered. But in an interview, program officials said that does not happen. “We have plans for that in the future,” said Nathan Graham, a crime analyst for the program. The agency said it would update the information on its website.
The agency’s indifference to the database is particularly noteworthy at a time when emerging research suggests that such a tool could be especially useful in rape investigations.
For years, politicians and women’s advocates have focused on testing the DNA evidence in rape kits, which are administered to sexual assault victims after an attack. Such evidence can be compared against a nationwide database of DNA samples to find possible suspects. Backlogs at police departments across the country have left tens of thousands of kits untested.
But DNA is collected in only about half of rape cases, according to recent studies. A nationwide clearinghouse of the unique behaviors, methods, or marks of rapists could help solve those cases lacking genetic evidence, criminal experts said. Other research has shown that rapists are far more likely thankillers to be serial offenders. Different studies have found that between one-fourth to two-thirds of rapists have committed multiple sexual assaults. Only about 1 percent of murderers are considered serial killers.
Studies have questioned the assumptions behind behavioral analysis tools like ViCAP. Violent criminals don’t always commit attacks the same way and different analysts can have remarkably different interpretations on whether crimes are linked. And a system that looks for criminal suspects on the basis of how a person acts is bound to raise alarms about Orwellian overreach. But many cops say any help is welcome in the difficult task of solving crimes like rape. A recent investigation by ProPublica and The New Orleans Advocate found that police in four states repeatedly missed chances to arrest the former NFL football star and convicted serial rapist Darren Sharper after failing to contact each other. “We’re always looking for tools,” said Joanne Archambault, the director of End Violence Against Women International, one of the leading police training organizations for the investigation of sexual assaults. “I just don’t think ViCAP was ever promoted enough as being one of them.”
The U.S. need only look north for an example of how such a system can play an important role in solving crimes. Not long after ViCAP was developed in the United States, Canadian law enforcement officials used it as a model to build their own tool, known as the Violent Criminal Linkage Analysis System, or ViCLAS. Today, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police maintains a database containing more than 500,000 criminal case profiles. The agency credits it with linking together some 7,000 unsolved crimes since 1995 – though not all of those linkages resulted in an arrest. If the FBI collected information as consistently as the Mounties, its database would contain more than 4.4 million cases, based on the greater U.S. population.
Instead, the FBI has about 89,000 cases on file.
Over the years, Canada has poured funding and staff into its program, resulting in a powerful analytical tool, said Sgt. Tony Lawlor, a senior ViCLAS analyst. One critical difference: in the U.S., reporting to the system is largely voluntary. In Canada, legislators have made it mandatory. Cops on the street still grumble about the system, which resembles the American version in the time and effort to complete. But “it has information which assists police officers, which is catching bad guys,” Lawlor said. “When police realize there’s a value associated with it, they use it.”
The ViCAP program eventually emerged from the fallout shelter where it began. It set up shop in an unmarked two-story brick office building in a Virginia business park surrounded by a printer’s shop, a dental practice and a Baptist church.
In a lengthy interview there, program officials offered a PowerPoint presentation with case studies of three serial killers who were captured in the past eight years with the help of the ViCAP program. They called the system “successful.”
“We do as good a job as we possibly can given our resources and limitations,” said Timothy Burke, a white-haired, 29-year agency veteran who is the program manager for ViCAP. “As with anything, we could always do better.”