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Back to Archives | Back to August 2005 Contents 

Wanted: An Effective Fugitive Task Force

John F. Clark, U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Virginia

Task Force

task force that combines the resources of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies can be an effective tool for finding and apprehending fugitives. Very few departments have adequate resources to maintain an active, internal fugitive apprehension squad, especially given the increased attention to homeland security on top of the already constant requests for police services.

But a task force can help overcome the resource limitations. A task force can combine the resources of a department with the resources of neighboring departments, and with the resources of state and federal agencies. The task force can then focus on fugitives and bring speed, efficiency, and collaboration to fugitive apprehension.

In many departments, police managers have had to de-emphasize the importance of apprehending fugitives, not for lack of caring, but due to the need to prioritize resources. This has led to a reactive and random approach to fugitive arrests. Often fugitive arrests are the result of a traffic stop or field interrogation. The officer checks the person's name with the NCIC and discovers an outstanding warrant. Unfortunately, thousands of felony warrants are never entered into the NCIC system. The situation may become serious; the officer's safety may be jeopardized if the suspect is a violent offender with an outstanding warrant.

In other departments, investigations may be hampered by an inability to follow up on suspects. Quite often, a case is considered closed after the suspects have been charged and had their arrest warrants entered into the NCIC system. Investigators and detectives may then look for the suspect after receiving new information or a public tip, but the case becomes less of a priority as other cases take precedence.

Consider the case of two armed men who raped a young female jogger in a park. One of the suspects was quickly arrested, but the other fled the United States. In some departments, after the suspect's information was entered in all the appropriate law enforcement databases, the case would have been put on the back burner. In this case, however, the marshals' fugitive task force adopted the case. Leads were followed aggressively and continuously until the suspect was arrested. Using the resources of the task force, there was no hiatus between the commission of the crime and the suspect's arrest.

The quick apprehension was accomplished by the Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force (CARFTF). CARFTF is a collaboration of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. The jurisdiction of CARFTF stretches from Baltimore, Maryland, to Norfolk, Virginia. All participating members have a single mission: the apprehension of fugitives.

Building an Effective Fugitive Task Force
Building CARFTF did not happen overnight. It was created as one of five congressionally funded national task forces hosted by the U.S. Marshals Service. CARFTF has, at its foundation, the Marshals Service's long-standing and proud tradition of fugitive apprehension.

Because CARFTF is a collaborative task force, members sign a memorandum of understanding. The memorandum outlines the commitment, the operating procedures, and the areas of responsibility for each participating agency. The memorandum is very specific and highly detailed. For example, it specifies supervisory roles, media policies, deadly force policies, and reporting requirements. Once signed, the memorandum serves as a membership document. It gives the participating agency full access to the resources of the entire CARFTF. This includes funding for vehicles, some overtime, computers, office space, and other task force-related operating needs.

The Richmond, Virginia, Police Department is one of the participating members of CARFTF. In Richmond, Chief Rodney Monroe realized that a new strategy, and a renewed commitment to working with police, prosecutors, and the public was needed to stop violent crimes. Richmond was experiencing an increase in violent crime exacerbated by an active drug and firearm market. To address the problem, the Richmond Police Department developed a multidisciplinary, cooperative violent crime reduction plan. One of the tools in the plan was the full use of CARFTF. All violent crime warrants were given to CARFTF, which effectively combined the fugitive apprehension expertise of the Marshals Service with the know-how of department detectives.

The memorandum of understanding between the Richmond Police Department and the Marshals Service stipulated the resources that each agency would provide. The Richmond Police Department provided office space, while the Marshals Service provided the computers and other infrastructure necessities. This sharing of resources gave all participating agencies a stake in the task force and contributed to interagency collaboration.

Special Enforcement Operations
Fugitive task forces can operate in another effective way. They can be short-term, concentrated, and well-planned operations that round up as many fugitives as possible. These are the special enforcement operations. The key to success in any special enforcement operation is planning and execution.

Petersburg, Virginia, is not unlike many suburban cities. It is located near a large urban center, in this case Richmond, Virginia. The city had pockets of urban blight and neighborhoods that had been taken over by drug dealers and gang members. These drug dealers and gang members operated with little fear of being arrested.

To address the problem, command staff from the Petersburg Police Department asked the Marshals Service to plan and execute a fugitive sweep aimed at clearing as many of the city's outstanding warrants as possible. The Marshals Service agreed, and the joint project became Operation Eagle Claw. Officers conducted the operation in three phases.

In phase 1 of the operation, Marshals Service investigators and criminal analysts partnered with Petersburg Police Department detectives to conduct an in-depth analysis of the fugitive files. The purpose was to determine the number of outstanding warrants and to begin developing a list of potential targets. Fugitives included on the target list were generally career criminals for whom multiple warrants had been issued, who had a history of violent crime, or who were wanted on violent crime charges. During this phase, 575 warrants were deemed valid and ready for additional administrative review.

In phase 2, sometimes called the homework phase, investigators and analysts conducted full-scale background information gathering on all targeted suspects. This included checking all public databases, DMV files, records of last known addresses, and other open sources of information. The purpose was to increase the likelihood of finding the fugitive. Files were prioritized, with an emphasis on those fugitives wanted for violent crimes such as homicide, firearms violations, or crimes associated with sexual predators.

In phase 3, teams composed of deputy marshals and Petersburg Police Department officers used the priority fugitive files to aggressively pursue every possible lead. The pursuits were highly visible. Every effort was made to ensure that the public knew the police were omnipresent and working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to find and apprehend the fugitives.

The results speak to the effectiveness of the operation. By pooling resources, identifying the problem, doing the research, and aggressively pursuing fugitives, the task force was both efficient and highly successful. What would normally have taken months to accomplish was completed in 30 days. During the operation, investigators closed 345 warrants, of which 106 were physical arrests. Among those arrested was a fugitive who had 15 prior arrests, including attempted murder, assault on a police officer, possession of a sawed-off shotgun, and possession of cocaine. A husband and wife embezzlement team, wanted on 47 warrants, were also found and arrested.

For city administrators, the additional good news was that the operation cost approximately $25,000. This averages to $235 per arrest or $72 per warrant. This illustrates that with good planning and execution, special enforcement projects can be extremely cost-effective.

Quantifying Results
In the world of police administration, violent crime reduction strategies are results driven. Mayors, city administrators, and the public demand to know what the police are doing to make their community safer. Every police chief is ultimately accountable for how that question is answered. Thus it is important to quantify the performance of the fugitive task force. It is critical not only to tally the number of arrests being made but also to report the number of repeat offenders being apprehended, the types of original charges for which the fugitives are being sought, and whether any weapons, drugs, or fruits of crime are found at the time of arrest. Such reporting helps to demonstrate the importance of finding fugitives, and it helps to demonstrate the fact that local police are thwarting additional crimes by arresting repeat offenders. The local fugitive task force should be considered a viable tool for reducing violent crime based on the results it produces.

Recently the Marshals Service sponsored Operation Falcon, the first-ever national fugitive roundup. An analysis of the results from Operation Falcon indicated that more than 70 percent of those arrested had a prior criminal record. This statistic may not surprise police administrators, but it may surprise those who fund programs. Quantifying the results demonstrates the importance of the operation, and confirms the need for continued operations.

Because many police departments have crime analysts, information gleaned from task force arrests may also be used to target problem areas and focus police resources on areas prone to violent crime. Sound record keeping will help police chiefs build and sustain a good violent crime reduction strategy.

Marketing Techniques
It is also important to plan for and implement an effective marketing strategy. A fugitive task force apprehension program and its best practices should not be hidden from public view. Marketing strategies can boost public confidence by showing that the police department is being proactive in apprehending violent offenders. The Marshals Service, in cooperation with state and local law enforcement partners, has successfully used a variety of techniques to market task force programs. The strategies range from the conventional to the unconventional.

Develop a most wanted program. A campaign that identifies the most wanted fugitives can be a very effective strategy, yet it is not a new technique. Public interest is generally piqued by the words "most wanted." If a department has several wanted individuals, it can develop criteria to select the worst offenders. Place the offender's name and picture, as well as a description of the crime, on an eye-catching wanted poster. Display the posters prominently. Many fugitives have been caught because a citizen saw a poster and called the police with a tip.

Get the public behind you. Consider using billboards to advertise fugitive tip lines or to display the 10 most wanted fugitives. In Richmond, Virginia, the city put wanted posters on city buses as a way to publicize the fugitives' faces. Whenever possible, have a member of the fugitive squad speak with various neighborhood watch groups and civic organizations as a way to promote the department's efforts to apprehend violent offenders.

Use the media. Local media outlets are a great way of advertising a police department's fugitive apprehension efforts. Spotlighting a weekly most wanted on the evening news or letting the media profile a particularly dangerous fugitive may aid efforts. News stories that highlight a successful fugitive arrest will also help to build public confidence and to show citizens that the department is being proactive about public safety. The public often forms an opinion, favorable or unfavorable, by what it reads or sees in the news media.

Develop a fugitive apprehension project. Departments may consider developing a jurisdiction-specific apprehension project. Operation Eagle Claw combined local, state, and federal law enforcement efforts and gave investigators a common purpose and motivation to find as many fugitives as possible in 30 days. Using a similar approach, the possibilities for other departments are limitless. For example, departments may choose to focus on a specific crime category, such as sex offenders. Or, if gang members are causing problems in a neighborhood, a fugitive sweep will send a powerful message that gang behaviors will not be tolerated. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 8, August 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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