Police take their investigations to cyberspace Wanted: Investigators hope Internet will help solve crimes.

August 03, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,Sun Staff

Last August, Maryland State Police found a body - badly burned, shot and stabbed - dumped just off Interstate 95 in Cecil County.

With little physical evidence and the body's identity unknown, Sgt. Bruce Diehl turned to the state police Web site, posting images of the man's unique set of teeth.

"Somebody would remember a man with those teeth," Diehl says. "It would be almost impossible to duplicate that photo in newspapers."

Like Diehl and the state police, law enforcement agencies in Maryland and across the nation are turning to the Internet. They hope the medium will foster community ties, boost recruitment and, perhaps, solve murder mysteries.

"It opens up communication to so many people," says Sgt. Kevin B. Novak, spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department. "It's an outgrowth of community policing, public information and law enforcement."

In Maryland, about two dozen departments maintain Web sites. Some list crime statistics, as well as recruitment and fugitive information, Others simply display telephone numbers, a photograph of a squad car and a message from the chief.

The Baltimore police Web site provides information about Police Athletic League centers, a brief department history and descriptions of the nine police districts.

"It's somewhat archaic," says Robert W. Weinhold Jr., police spokesman. "Our plans are to make it more innovative, more useful to Web users and also interactive."

Weinhold says the department eventually hopes to have wanted posters and overviews of the bureaus and units online.

In Baltimore County, police have been updating their site since 1995, adding news releases, crime figures and recruiting tidbits. Officials soon plan to add detailed crime statistics at the neighborhood level. The department already provides that information on a telephone hot line.

"We've been getting calls for years from people moving into the community," says Officer Bill Price, who operates the site. "This will save us time and give them a look at their neighborhoods."

Real estate agents say they will direct their clients to those Web pages.

"It will be a big help to buyers and consumers who have that kind of access," says Bill Griffin, manager of Century 21 Results in Catonsville. "A lot of people are out of town [or] country, and have a concern about crime in different neighborhoods."

Many agencies also display information about wanted criminals - from prostitutes in Minnesota to deadbeat parents in Baltimore County.

In the old days, the FBI would hang wanted posters in federal buildings and post offices, hoping that someone buying stamps might recognize a fugitive. But it took time, effort and money to distribute the posters across the country.

Today, the FBI displays that information almost instantaneously for a global audience that visits its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives site. FBI officials say the site has drawn more than 140 million "hits" since October.

In recent weeks, the FBI has added four photographs and artists' sketches of the man accused of bombing an Atlanta abortion clinic. That fugitive, Eric Robert Rudolph, is believed to be hiding in a North Carolina forest.

"The technology allows us to do [the] same thing with more accuracy and is viewed and seen by an astronomical number of people," says Special Agent Frank Scafidi. "It increases the speed we can get our jobs done."

Maryland State Police also maintain a most wanted page for the state's fugitives that generates about 30,000 hits a month, officials say.

In Baltimore County, Sheriff Norman M. Pepersack Jr. has posted pictures and descriptions of parents who owe child support (along with his own picture). Several of those "wanted" photos have "Apprehended" in red letters strung across them. Since March 1996, Pepersack says, at least three fugitives have been arrested after they were spotted by residents who saw their images on the Web.

Besides helping law enforcement, Pepersack says, the Web is building exposure for his otherwise nondescript force of deputies - a pet political project.

"A lot of people don't know what the sheriff's office is, or what role we play in law enforcement. ... The Web site helps," he says.

Despite the popularity and growth of public safety Web sites, many police agencies haven't entered the Web age.

Although upscale Howard County has a technically savvy population, its Police Department doesn't have a Web site and has no plan to start one. But the force does show some cyber-savvy - officers use an electronic mailing list to send daily crime reports to more than 30 residents.

"It keeps you alert to what's going on in the community," said John C. Maitland, 69, of Columbia's Long Reach village, who forwards his e-mail crime reports to neighbors. "It happens right away."

While police say Web sites help build community relations, the most popular pages deal with job postings and recruitment.

"There are a lot of people looking to apply with police departments," said Sgt. Steve Outten of the state police. "It gives them the ability to evaluate the pros and cons without going to each site for an interview."

Meanwhile, state police hope their macabre posting of the victim's teeth will lead to clues in the Cecil County slaying. So far, it has brought just one tip.

"We'll take anything we can get," said Diehl, the investigator. "Right now, identifying the body is paramount, then things will click together."

Web sites listed in this article and other law enforcement sources can be found at www.officer.com.

Pub Date: 8/3/98

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