Whitey Bulger lesson: Police need tools to get a hot read on cold cases

The capture of alleged crime boss James Joseph "Whitey" Bulger garnered more than a few headlines and put a bright spotlight on law enforcement’s work in tracking down fugitives.

After 16 years on the run, Bulger — wanted on suspicion of a variety of crimes, including 19 murders — was finally caught when detectives working the case found his girlfriend based on known details about her habits. For example, they knew she spent a lot of time having her teeth professionally cleaned. Once she was found, authorities followed her to Bulger.

As any experienced law enforcement officer knows, this is exactly the type of obscure tidbit that usually leads to breaking open a case. It’s rarely the fugitive who is at the center of the investigation. Instead, it’s often family or known associates who leave breadcrumbs that ultimately lead to an arrest.

The challenge for law enforcement is managing all those fragments of information with traditional paper notes.

There are four major factors that come to mind.

1. The time involved in these cases. When fugitives disappear, they are generally very diligent about covering their tracks. It can take years to get even a credible sniff of their whereabouts. In the meantime, law enforcement officers who start on the case might change specialties, get promoted, move to another agency or retire. Even if the original investigators have done an outstanding job of documenting the facts, a new person must start over, reading the notes, prioritizing them, and trying to develop patterns and conclusions that the previous officer already had done. Bulger’s alleged murders took place from 1973 to 1985, and many of the investigators have since retired.

2. The nature of paper files. After the first few months have gone by, if nothing has turned up, generally the files get moved to a basement or file room. The data keeps accumulating as tips come in and are vetted, but there’s no easy way of finding specific information within all that seemingly unrelated paperwork. Envision a person with stacks of files all over his or her office and knows where everything is. He can put his fingers on whatever he needs immediately because it’s in his head. Someone else coming in would have to search through files for days.

3. The inability to access data from other law enforcement agencies. Particularly when a fugitive has been involved in major crimes or has crossed state lines, more than one law enforcement agency might be looking for the fugitive and gathering information from a variety of sources. Each may have a piece of the puzzle. But without the ability to exchange information easily, everyone’s job becomes a lot more difficult than it needs to be.

4. Manpower. Unless the case involves a homicide or a shooting of a police officer or high-profile government official, a fugitive cold case tends to take a low priority in an officer’s day – especially now that every dollar spent is being scrutinized. The bulk of an officer’s time will be spent on more immediate crimes with a better chance of return, which means the previously mentioned factors are exponentially more vexing.

An automated information management platform can help agencies solve those issues, keeping fugitive cases on simmer rather than allowing them to go completely cold. By removing many of the manual processes involved in vetting, recording, sharing and later sifting through small bits of data, this type of platform provides the perseverance required to bring fugitives to justice.

Take Bulger’s girlfriend’s obsession with getting her teeth cleaned. That is a small detail that could be easily lost amid the thousands of other pieces of information that have been collected over the years, particularly in the transition from one officer to the next. But if a tip regarding a possible sighting makes her a potential lead, having her profile available through an index-based search means an agency can develop the idea to contact dentists with a description, and alert them to look out for this unusual behavior.

Ease of exchange

Fugitives sometimes move from place to place to avoid recognition — or prosecution because ingrained criminal behavior is difficult to give up completely. That means valuable tips and information about a particular fugitive that could lead to an arrest might be scattered across several agencies. So when looking at an information management platform, one of the deciding factors should be the ease with which you can exchange information with other agencies and departments.

It’s important that your information management platform integrate with those of other agencies and departments in an information sharing environment (ISE). An ISE is an integrated network of computers, analysts, intelligence collectors, law enforcement officers and others who are involved in sharing terrorism and crime-related information including suspicious activity reports, at all levels of government.

As part of the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, SAR data still resides on the servers of the agency that owns it, but it can be accessed by other participating members through an ISE. The owner of the data maintains control over what can be seen by partner agencies, according to whatever rules they enable. For example, they can share information about a suspicious white van without revealing the source. Integrating with an ISE shouldn’t require a lot of extra effort if the capability is already built into your information management platform.

By participating in an ISE, more information is available for analysis, which can lead to a speedier conclusion. You should also be able to set up alerts based on keywords or phrases that automatically notify you when pertinent data becomes available anywhere in the combined systems. That way officers don’t need to search for it; the information comes to them automatically, allowing them to use their limited time for fugitive cases most efficiently.

Bulger the confidante

Another interesting element of the Bulger case is his role as a confidential informant. If we take a moment to think about that, there are lessons to be learned. Many of the murders Bulger was said to have committed were during his time as an informant. His handler might have even tipped him off about his impending arrest in 1994, allowing him to escape into the night and live on the lam until 2011.

Proper handling of confidential informants is a tricky business with many risks, and even well-intentioned handlers occasionally cross a line. Having a technology system in place to track informants can help handlers enforce best practices, give supervisors opportunities for coaching their teams and assist in preventing one informant from playing officers or agencies against one another.

Stories about informants setting up a drug sale by one agency to officers in another abound. Being able to see all the information tied to a particular source, within the bounds of privacy laws and departmental policy, helps keep officers out of embarrassing and potentially dangerous situations.

A good IT system enforces security provisions to keep names confidential so that handlers feel comfortable with entering data. If someone in law enforcement makes a query about an informant, the handlers should be notified so they can contact the inquiring investigator and share details at their discretion. Officers must see a good security model in their technology solution if they are going to enter informant data.

Of course, all this technology is valuable only if officers enter the data in the first place. The more difficult it is to use, the less likely the system will be of value. That’s just human nature. It’s therefore essential to have an information management platform that allows data to be entered once, remains searchable in years to come and integrates data from other agencies, including computer-aided dispatch records of other departments, or even data from the FBI’s National Data Exchange system.

Capturing a fugitive isn’t always the hot, action-packed adventure portrayed in TV and movies. Instead, just as in the Bulger case, it’s the result of a lot of perseverance turning many small and seemingly disparate details into a more complete picture. The right information platform can help spur the process along, keeping that data from getting lost and the trail from becoming cold so law enforcement can turn up the heat when the time is right.

Reader Comments

Tue, Sep 6, 2011 Steve Serrao

To John Buckley: Thanks for your comments. You did misunderstand with respect to NDEX. The article states that any informant management system you evaluate or buy should be one that "integrates data from other agencies, including computer-aided dispatch records of other departments, or even data from the FBI’s National Data Exchange system.
This means your CI system should have the ability to receive information from these other data sources to make your life easier and reduce data entry. The comment was in no way meant to indicate that NDEX is an informant management system.
Steve Serrao

Sat, Sep 3, 2011 john Buckley

interesting article. I may have misunderstood but is the inference that NDEX is an appropriate system for managing informants?. I totally agree with the authors comments that all informants should be managed on an IT system but such an IT system needs to be purpose built to reduce the risks involved and gain the maximum benefits. Simply entering details onto a spreadsheet and creting a few hyperlinks is not an IT system for managing informants. It needs a lot of thought put in if criticisms such as those levied against New Jersey law enforcement in a recent report are to be avoided. Unfortunately many IT providers do not have a real understanding of the complexity of what is required yet are all to happy to take law enforcement money and shoot the line " we can build you something". My advice to any LEA is buy a purpose built informant management system but before you do check out the agencies that are already using the product and make sure it is working for them. If any one wants to contact me on this feel free.

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