opinion: Part one: Communication across police agencies is key in solving Michigan freeway shooter case
Communications will be the key to catching the shooter who has been plaguing the I-96 freeway in Oakland, Livingston, Shiawassee, and Ingham Counties. It will not be easy or immediate, but the shooter will be identified—if he has not already been caught by the time this goes to print. Unfortunately the clock is ticking, and as time goes by the probability that more will be injured or even killed is increased.
The investigation into the I-96 shooting incidents involves local police agencies in Oakland, Livingston, Shiawassee and Ingham counties as well as state and federal law enforcement agencies. The use of a multiagency task force is the most effective and efficient way to investigate the series of shootings that have occurred on I-96 in the past month.
Without a task force — with one unified command — each agency would be investigating the crimes from their own standpoint. Work inadvertently would be duplicated, and one agency’s investigation would conflict with another.
Task forces share personnel and resources from contributing agencies and most importantly, they share information. The collection of cases will be solved much more efficiently and quickly by agencies collectively working toward catching the shooter.
At the initial stages of an investigation, information management is a paramount concern. Information coming in from the public in the form of “tips” must be read, evaluated prioritized and then assigned to investigators. The information from the tips must then be placed in a database.
An investigative leader must first read all incoming tips. Computers are great for combing through data and mining key words, phrases, license plates or names, but it takes a human with investigative intuition to make key investigative linkages. That is why only one, or at most two, people should read, prioritize and assign all the incoming tips.
What we did in previous task forces I worked on was place tips in categories. In the old days, the tips would be placed in one of four binders entitled "Named Suspect/Named Source," "Named Suspect/Unnamed Source," "Unknown Suspect/Named Source" and "Unknown Suspect/Unknown Source." Today of course, the categories are similar but the information is placed on computers.
If one suspect’s name comes in on numerous tips, those tips are linked and assigned to one investigator. Obviously numerous tips coming in naming the same individual also make that person a higher priority target of investigation.
From the crude binder systems the highest priority tips come from sources or tipsters who are willing to be identified, recontacted and potentially testify in court as to what they know. The tips that are specific about named individuals from an identifiable source are the most fruitful, highest priority tips.
The least priority is placed on anonymous tipsters giving information on suspects they cannot name. A typical tip in this category would be something like, “You know I saw a guy, who looks like the composite drawing of the suspect, at the Art Fair last year.” Great. The police appreciate all information, but there is next to nothing investigators can do with a tip like that.
Once the tips have been collected, read, analyzed and prioritized, they must be assigned for investigation. One of the most valuable pieces of equipment in a major investigation involving multiple investigators is—drum roll please, but be prepared for a low-tech answer—a huge Dry Erase board.
One of the most innovative, functional, efficient design characteristics of any newly built police station in Washtenaw County that I have seen is in the Eastern Michigan Police Department. In a common area where officers are briefed and complete their reports one whole wall from floor to ceiling—or at least as high as the average human can reach—is a dry erase board.
My buddy “Cannon” at the Sheriff’s office has put dry erase boards on all the walls that did not have television monitors or shelves in one of his command post trailers. He also placed them wherever he could in meeting rooms for investigators.
Dry erase boards are ridiculously handy and really keep everyone in the loop and involved. These boards assign tasks and responsibilities to investigators and tell other cops, at a glance, who is investigating what or whom.
The efficiency comes from the fact that as investigators talk to one suspect, they might learn valuable information about another suspect. Instead of just placing the information in their report and hoping it gets to the person who needs the information, investigators can look on the board and see who needs the information.
The investigator with the information can then walk over to the other officer’s desk or make a cellphone call to pass on the information. That takes much less time, than typing or dictating a report and trusting it will get to someone who needs the information.
If an investigator is having a specific problem or is looking for someone they can write their request on the board so other detectives can help. Everyone in the investigation can look at the board and see who others are looking for or who is no longer a suspect and thus unworthy of spending precious time on.
Even while on a phone with a tipster, an investigator can look on the board to have questions answered or direct calls to the right person in the investigation. The only downside of information sharing through dry erase boards is when the information can be of a confidential nature, limited access to the area is a necessity.
Information flow between all members of the task force thus easily is established once they are spending at least a portion of the day in this common area. The next hurdle for the task force is effective communication with the public through the media — which I will discuss next week.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.