Thursday, March 13, 2008

Violent Criminal Apprehension, by Greg Cooper

There are literally thousands of separate and independent federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in the United States. Although each of the agencies share common goals in their distinct jurisdictions of “keeping the peace,” “protecting the public,” and “maintaining law and order,” they do not generally share common databases or records management systems. Amazingly, each agency maintains separate and independent systems aligned with their own geographical or legal jurisdiction.

This condition exists in spite of their common goals and the common sense of sharing and maintaining inter-dependent systems that could otherwise effectively facilitate coordination and cooperation between agencies. Inter-dependent systems would also improve relations and the mutual best interest of both law enforcement and the public at large. Some authorities list several reasons for preserving the status quo. Their arguments are understandable and justifiable under certain circumstances; however, they do not pass muster when measuried up against the benefits derived from merging their collective efforts or the expectation of the public. The primary prohibitive factors against combining criminal and information management systems between agencies are issues of privacy and finance. There are other obstacles that must be overcome as well, including organizational politics, pride, and ego. Unfortunately, the legitimate objections are often presented as a blanket excuse when, in some cases, the root or heart of the matter lies in the personality of the organization, either in its leadership or historical policies. Regardless, most public safety executives concede that sharing and coordinating information is the “best-case scenario” and publicly support the concept while bemoaning the realities of financial restrictions and potential legalities.

Recognizing the valid rationale for either resisting, delaying, or preventing attempts to merge separate data and independent systems, authorities have incorporated creative and resourceful alternative approaches. In support of law enforcement’s efforts to overcome such obstacles, specialized autonomous databases have been created. These databases are separate from the individual agencies, allowing access to outside agency information while still protecting privacy restrictions and reducing financial considerations. Several databases have been created, monitored, and administered by official federal, state, and even private institutions. Legitimate law enforcement entities are allowed full access through compliance with strict standards, rules, and guidelines. The existing databases are examples of excellent resources made available to law enforcement agencies in their collective efforts to share, coordinate, and cooperate while supporting each other in identifying, investigating, and apprehending offenders. A representation of various databases and informational resources are summarized in chapters 5 and 10 of a book I authored with Mike King, Cold Case Methodology (Law Tech Custom Publishing, 2005). Among the resources listed and described in that work is the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP). It is the only national database that exists for the purpose of assisting law enforcement agencies in determining if cases from separate jurisdictions may have been committed by the same offender.

Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP)

In 1985, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced the birth of VICAP. The purpose of VICAP is to provide a national clearinghouse for law enforcement agencies to coordinate information on missing persons, unidentified bodies, and homicides. Participation in the program is voluntary and is available to all law enforcement agencies in the country. It was determined that a significant number of cases bearing common characteristics could be identified by collating these categories together. In 1997, I was promoted to the VICAP National Program Manager. As a criminal profiler, I re-engineered the program to work more closely and in alignment with the Criminal Investigative Analysis Program (FBI’s Criminal Profilers). Additionally, the stated mission and focus of the program was streamlined to “facilitate cooperation, communication, and coordination between law enforcement agencies in their efforts to investigate, identify, track, apprehend, and prosecute violent serial offenders.” VICAP is a nationwide data information center designed to collect, collate, and analyze crimes of violence, specifically murder. Cases examined by VICAP include

  • solved or unsolved homicides or attempts, especially those that involve an abduction; are apparently random, motiveless, or sexually oriented; or are known or suspected to be part of a series;
  • missing persons, where the circumstances indicate a strong possibility of foul play and the victim is still missing;
  • unidentified dead bodies where the manner of death is known or suspected to be homicide;
  • abductions of children or attempts;
  • solved or unsolved sexual assaults or attempts.

Currently, VICAP is working toward implementing a sexual assault component for the VICAP tracking system. For VICAP to work effectively, it needs an invitation from local law enforcement to participate in an investigation. The FBI provides, free of charge, the software to set up the VICAP database.

Cases with an arrested individual or identified offender can be submitted to the VICAP system by local law enforcement investigators for comparison and possible matching with unsolved cases. Once the case is entered into the database, it is compared continually against all other entries on the basis of certain aspects of the case. The purpose of this is to detect signature aspects of a crime and similar patterns of modus operandi (MO), which will, in turn, allow VICAP personnel to pinpoint those crimes that may have been committed by the same offender in other areas of the country. If patterns are found, the VICAP coordinators will then work with all of the law enforcement agencies involved to solve the crime.

When a pattern of criminal activity is discovered; (for example, a serial murder suspect has been identified), VICAP can then assist law enforcement agencies by coordinating a multi-agency investigative conference. These conferences can be very beneficial, especially if it has been determined that the suspects have traveled throughout the country. A pivotal product of prior conferences has been the coordination of activities such as search warrants, interview matters, and laboratory testing. The VICAP database is effective in solving crimes from the past to the present. Current cases may be entered as well as cases as far back as the 1950s; or any case that law enforcement thinks VICAP can assist in may be offered (Cold Case Methodology).

Current VICAP Services

The Second Edition of the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual (Jossey-Bass, 2006), of which I was a contributing author, reports that VICAPs services provided to local law enforcement include the following:

  • Analytical support for cold case investigation, to include homicide and sexual assault matters that may potentially involve transient or serial offenders
  • Mapping, trend analysis, training, and case coordination support and analysis
  • A full range of analytical services for all member agencies on submitted cases, as well as limited analysis for nonmember agencies which submit criteria cases
  • Written products prepared and disseminated in the Criminal Intelligence Assessment Report (CIAR) format
  • Offender timelines, matrices, and mapping products
  • NCIC interface for off-line searches of suspects or vehicles
  • National Law Enforcement Telecommunication Systems (NLETS) searches of messages dating back to 1986
  • National crime analyst training inservices to include crime analysis, behavioral analysis, and case management
  • VICAP Alerts published in the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin and other publications (VICAP Alerts feature crime information notices of general interest to law enforcement)

Revised Form

In the early-to-mid 1990s during my tenure as the National Program Manager, the VICAP crime analysts began a detailed examination of the submission report. Their efforts resulted in a reduction of the questions from 190 to only 95. The current format is in an “intelligent layout and design and it looks less imposing and more like an attractive, easy-to-use reporting instrument.” It has always been my opinion that the VICAP form also serves as an excellent reference guide while conducting a thorough and well thought-out investigation of homicide, missing persons, unidentified bodies, and sexual assaults. If the questions posed by the VICAP form are completed, it can be presumed that the investigation is complete and thorough.

In conclusion, it is critical that American law enforcement agencies foster a stronger will toward a more interdependent network of their respective resources in order to optimize a strong and safe society. This is particularly applicable in resolving difficult cases. Individual agencies, regardless of their size, that work exclusively and independently, will never have sufficient resources alone to complete their mission. However, those agencies that apply the three-pronged approach of cooperating, communicating, and coordinating their efforts and resources will reap an abundance of success while being extolled by the citizens that they have taken an oath to protect and serve.

In the next issue of The Forensic Examiner, I will provide an example that demonstrates the type and nature of cases for which VICAP’s services can provide critical assistance and support: the case of Robert Ben Rhoades.

Greg Cooper, MPA, FBI (retired), Chief of Police (retired), started his law enforcement career as a police officer in Provo Utah in 1977. He began his criminal profiling career in 1986 with the FBI, Seattle Division. Just a couple of years later, he was soon promoted to field coordinator for the Criminal Profiling Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA, and then in Los Angeles, CA. In 1990 he was again promoted to profiler with the Quantico unit, where he was also able to teach several classes at the FBI’s prestigious National Academy and supervise VICAP. In 1995, Cooper left the FBI to serve as the chief of police in Provo, Utah. Currently, Cooper enjoys instructing psychological profiling and anatomy of homicide courses and serving as an expert witness in the legal arena. He is a coauthor of the Crime Classification Manual and, the recently released, Predators: Who Are They and How to Avoid Them.

Do not miss Greg Cooper’s criminal profiling workshop at the 2007 ACFEI National Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. He will be speaking from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 6, and attendance at his workshop is free with conference registration! For more information about the National Conference, see pages 42–48.


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By Greg Cooper, MPA, FBI (retired), Chief of Poice (retired)

Fall 2007 THE FORENSIC EXAMINER- published by Robert OBlock

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