For roughly 30 years the FBI has virtually ignored a system meant to help cops track the behavioral patterns of violent criminals
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.
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… Continue Reading…