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Closing the Case: Solving Violent Crimes Quickly and Efficiently with Public Records

By Tom Joyce, Lieutenant, Commander (Retired), 79th Precinct Detective Squad and Cold Case Homicide Squad, New York City, New York, Police Department; and Director, Law Enforcement Strategy, LexisNexis Risk Solutions


he job of a police officer is not easy. Tasked with apprehending criminals, maintaining public order and preventing and detecting crimes, police officers put their lives in danger every day. In order to do their jobs well, officers need reliable information and plenty of resources. Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies face daunting challenges: funding cuts, outdated information, and increasingly sophisticated criminals.

Adding to the challenges are the common assumptions that many crimes can be solved with the same cutting-edge technologies people see on television. In many cases, however, these are phantom solutions that police officers cannot access, even though the average citizen may expect it of them. While the entertainment industry has generated unrealistic expectations about the speed and the accuracy of some investigative tools, there are tools—such as public records and systems designed to make use of them—that exist right now, which can be used to develop leads for solving crimes more quickly and effectively.

Nowhere are these tools more needed than in the area of violent crime. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of homicide victims per year, while much lower than its peak in 1991, is still significantly higher than the numbers from the 1950s, the 1960s, and the early 1970s. In fact, it is close to three times greater now than during these time periods.1

The current economic downturn may further exacerbate this problem as all levels of government are being forced to cut budgets while citizens are committing crimes to financially survive. For these reasons, it is critical that law enforcement personnel, at the federal, the state, and the local levels, understand how public records data can help accelerate and simplify the investigative process, leading to faster, more efficient resolutions. This article explains why public records can and should play a key role in all law enforcement investigations. It shows why, regardless of the crime, public records information is an important tool in assisting law enforcement agencies, benefiting almost every point of an investigation, and answers the following questions:

  • What are public records?
  • Who benefits from public records?
  • How do public records fit into the different stages of an investigation?
  • How do public records play a role in specific violent crimes including homicides, robberies, and missing children?


What Are Public Records?

The term “public records” refers to information that has been filed or recorded by local, state, federal, or other government agencies, such as corporate and property records. Public records are created by the federal and local government (for example, vital records, immigration records, real estate records, driving records, and criminal records) or by the individual (for example, magazine subscriptions and voter registration). Most essential public records are maintained by the government, and many are accessible to the public either free of charge or for an administrative fee. Availability is determined by federal, state, and local regulations. Although public records are indeed public, their accessibility is not always simple, free, or easy. Some states have separate policies that govern the availability of information contained in public records.

Public records are used to solve a variety of societal problems and are being leveraged by financial services firms to make improved lending decisions; by collections agencies to support a refuel of the economy; and by business and government institutions to detect and combat fraud, waste, and abuse and to reduce identity fraud, protect our borders, identify and locate sex offenders, and find and save missing children.

Public records have always been available in one form or another; however, the process to access and analyze these data has often been cumbersome, fragmented, and expensive. Technology developments over the past decade have enabled organizations to address this issue by centralizing the data and simplifying the process of identifying and retrieving relevant records at a moment’s notice. These developments have the effect of supercharging the ability to use public records to quickly locate people, detect fraud, uncover assets, and discover connections between suspects, witnesses, or associates.


Public Records and the Investigative Process

The scope of an investigation varies depending on the size of the law enforcement agency. Police departments across the country vary in size and resources, and these variations can drastically alter how investigations proceed. In a smaller department, a uniformed police officer may be responsible for everything from traffic tickets to murder investigations. Larger agencies have the luxury of offering specialized resources, such as line officers, investigators, and analysts, for each role in the course of an investigation. Regardless of the size of the department, each investigation can be considered to have three key components:
  • The Initial Police Response. An officer responds to a call for service or is dispatched to a crime scene. Once at the scene, the officer takes an initial amount of information from witnesses and gathers evidence. In the case of a violent crime, the officer must proceed with caution as the suspect may be armed, dangerous, and nearby.
  • The Investigative Process. Investigators take the information and evidence from the scene of the crime and follow up on leads. This stage often involves tracking down witnesses and associates, knocking on doors, examining physical evidence, and verifying statements.
  • The Analysis. The analysis component is an in-depth process intended to make connections and detect patterns. Analysts often work with outside agencies and associations, using law enforcement data to identify patterns and link cases. The analysis can be a time-consuming process involving many pieces of data.

The main focus in solving any crime is getting the facts about what happened and ensuring the accuracy of those facts. Public records play an important role in optimizing each step of the investigative process:

  • The Initial Police Response. When a police officer responds to a call for service, public records information is critical before the officer even arrives at the scene of the crime. If feasible, the officer should know who lives or works at the address and know of any associated criminal records, as well as whether any guns are licensed to people at that address. It is important to know who is at the scene before the officer arrives, as the resident may have potentially dangerous relatives or associates.
  • The Investigative Process. On the investigative side, public records information can verify information that witnesses provide and draw attention to additional current occupants who may have outstanding warrants and other red flags such as parolees or probationers. Using public records also streamlines the investigative process, so officers can identify relevant witnesses and associates, verify identities, verify locations, prioritize with whom to speak first, and gather the best address and phone number information.
  • The Analysis. In this stage of the investigation, analysts can integrate public records information with data from law enforcement databases to create a comprehensive view of the crime; link individuals, assets, and contacts; and draw conclusions that would otherwise be missed.

Law enforcement agencies do not use crystal balls, and police officers are not able to predict what will happen during the course of their investigations. From finding missing children to homicide to robbery, each investigation presents its own set of challenges. The following scenarios illustrate how public records information may assist in specific investigations of significant violent crimes.


Finding Missing Children

Experience has shown that the first minutes and hours following the abduction of a child are crucial, as the chances of rescuing an abducted child decrease significantly after the first 24 hours. The investigation commences with police officers conducting a forensic investigation of the abduction site, while other investigators are deployed to coordinate and track investigative leads. The need for accurate information is critical as these leads can often number in the thousands. When an officer brings back information, an investigator begins the process of verifying the facts. While not all child abductions are violent, timeliness is critical: It has been estimated that 75 percent of children who are murdered after being abducted by strangers are killed within the first three hours after the abduction.

In the case of a missing child, officers follow protocol established by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to canvass the scene and find leads. NCMEC analyzes and prioritizes leads for investigators using public and private databases, identifying patterns among cases across the country.

How Public Records Can Help. In addition to the numerous ways in which public records optimize the investigative process, they play a uniquely important role in child abductions, especially when there is reason to suspect the involvement of a
sexual predator.

In these investigations, one of the first steps in the investigative process is to determine if any sex offenders have a relationship with any individuals in the home of the abducted child. That step is followed by a check of online databases for registered sex offenders who may live in the vicinity. Police officers should, and do, prioritize these offenders in their investigations.

However, there are serious shortcomings in the sex offender registry systems of most states. For instance, these registries require offenders to register themselves and update their registries when they move within or between states. Individuals intent on abducting children have an obvious motivation not to be found. Additionally, existing registry data may not include all known information about the offender, such as known aliases and associates.

Public records can help solve this problem by enabling law enforcement agencies to, within minutes, determine which registered and unregistered sex offenders may have a link to the abducted child or may live close by, and whether there are indications that they are now at a location other than the ones where they are registered. Using advanced technology, public records databases can identify, in seconds, individuals with prior convictions for sex offenses and whether or not those individuals have registered—as they are required by law to do—with their municipality. As a result, officers can respond
more quickly to child abductions, identifying any addresses associated with local sex offenders and prioritizing them in
their investigations.


Homicides

Homicide investigations are clearly one of the highest priorities for any state or local law enforcement agency. Significant resources are placed into homicide investigations and, depending on the circumstances, homicide investigations and prosecutions may extend many years after the crime was committed. Surprisingly, even those criminals previously convicted of murder can be extremely difficult to track down.

In murder investigations, many agencies follow the 72-hour rule, in which officers closely investigate the first 48 hours after the homicide occurred and the 24 hours prior to the homicide. Most homicides are precipitated by an event that occurred within the last 24 hours of the victim’s life, so an effective investigative method is to dissect the last 24 hours of the victim’s life and then aggressively investigate leads within the first 48 hours of the commission of the crime.

How Public Records Can Help. Time is of the essence in any investigation, especially homicide investigations. Public records can enhance a homicide investigation in several key ways.

First, after any crime, it is critical for officers to reach involved parties before they have time to coordinate stories and alibis, in order to prevent collusion. Public records information can be used to verify stories or find inconsistencies within statements and relationships provided by witnesses, suspects, or associates.

Second, if a victim or a suspect has never had contact with a law enforcement agency, then the agency would not have any records in its database. Officers can then turn to public records to obtain the most current information, such as date of birth, address, and driver’s license information. If the suspect is already on the run, officers can turn to public records information to retrieve a comprehensive list of associates and relatives, enabling them to knock on doors, call persons of interest, and generate even more actionable information.

Third, the more interviews that take place, the more information is uncovered that can lead to a breakthrough in the investigation. Immediate family may not know everything about a victim, but associates may be more willing to disclose hidden secrets. If the interviews do not result in strong leads and potential suspects, police officers then focus on the victim. A “victimology” is a complete background investigation on who the victim is, where the victim spent time, and with whom the victim is associated. Public records information is an invaluable tool for generating leads from this process. For example, identifying previous places of employment can enable officers to interview former coworkers. Additionally, a victimology can be augmented by information regarding the type of cars registered to the victim, the people with whom the victim worked, and businesses and corporations related to the victim. This information can then be combined with information from a law enforcement agency database to create a comprehensive report, including actionable data points.


Robbery

With the exception of sexual crimes, most felony investigations follow the investigatory model described above for homicide investigations.. Typically, the severity of the crime determines how much effort and resources will be utilized in the crime’s investigation.

The frequency of robberies can be hard to believe; sixty robberies typically occur per month in a single square mile area. The sooner an identification is made in a robbery case, the sooner officers can apprehend the suspect and prevent future robberies. Identifying and incarcerating these criminals drastically decreases crime rates.

How Public Records Can Help. When robberies have witnesses, public records information is critical to validating information and finding additional leads. If a getaway car is involved in the robbery, public records information can help identify the vehicle, its current and previous owners, and any associated addresses.


The Importance of Accurate Information

An incredible amount of time can be wasted during investigations when public records are not used. When agencies prioritize information within their internal data over public records, they are doing themselves a disservice. This information should work in tandem to allow the officers to work faster, more efficiently, and more safely. Rather than compete, public records information complements existing law enforcement records and contacts.

Law enforcement data apply more toward specific law enforcement information such as identifying patterns between crimes. Consider a situation in which a police officer is trying to identify a suspect in three different robberies and only one of the three robberies has strong leads. Public records information can be leveraged to help identify and locate the suspect from the leads in the first robbery, while internal law enforcement records can link the three cases together. The combination of public records and law enforcement data can help solve all three robberies—an outcome not possible without multiple sources of information.

Public records information can drastically improve the efficiency of agencies by enabling them to accomplish tasks in one day that may have taken several days and a significant amount of resources previously. This information can enable agencies to be just as if not more efficient with less personnel, allowing them to cut costs and reassign key personnel to other cases, leading to more arrests, more cases cleared positively, and an overall reduction in crime. It is up to all law enforcement professionals to challenge any remaining reluctance to embrace new technologies and methodologies. When all agencies understand the true capabilities of public records and utilize them more effectively throughout their investigative processes, officers can solve more crimes in less time, making neighborhoods and law enforcement activities safer. ■


Tom Joyce is currently the director of law enforcement strategy for LexisNexis Risk Solutions and is a retired member of the New York City, New York, Police Department (NYPD). He held the rank of lieutenant commander of the 79th Precinct Detective Squad and the Cold Case Homicide Squad, and additionally held positions within the Organized Crime Control Bureau and Robbery Squad. He has lectured extensively on investigative techniques and case studies for the NYPD Homicide Investigators Course and has authored several articles on policing and criminal investigations.


Note:
1U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Homicide Trends in the United States, 1982–2008, November 2011, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2221 (accessed December 2, 2011).

Please cite as:

By Tom Joyce, "Closing the Case: Solving Violent Crimes Quickly and Efficiently with Public Records," The Police Chief 79 (February 2012): 50–56.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 2, February 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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