DENVER — In recent years the public has become an active participant in the identification and apprehension of murder suspects.
Crimestoppers program — which began in Albuquerque, N.M., nearly 20 years ago — opened the door to public participation in the criminal justice system by offering rewards to anonymous callers who help solve
That program now exists in every state and in many foreign countries.
In recent weeks, a call to the "America's Most Wanted" television show resulted in the
capture of the infamous "Texas Seven" escapees in a small mountain town in southern Colorado.
An increasing number of police departments are now employing the public in a new arena — the Internet.
Dozens of law enforcement agencies — as well as the states of North Carolina and Georgia — have set up Web sites to inform the public about unsolved crimes, most of which are murders.
Police agencies across the country are putting up similar Web sites, and the prosecutor's office in Monmouth County, N.J., has also established a Web page for unsolved murders. Broward
County, Fla., has its own "cold-case" Web site.
According to the agencies involved, those sites are working well.
"It's been four or five years, and it seems to be
working," said Pam Tulley, the director of the intelligence division of the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation. "Our former intelligence division chief came up with the idea, and our department has just
kind of absorbed it."
North Carolina's Web page was developed after former NCBI intelligence director Kevin West took a book home to learn how to build Web pages.
the Colorado Bureau of Investigation have said such a Web page would be costly and would require a significant staff to maintain, but the Web site operated by the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation has
been running smoothly without extra employees.
"Designing the Web page is the hardest part," Tulley said. "Once it's up and running, it's not that hard."
Tulley said the
department's crime analysts add and delete information on the page as needed.
"We also have to answer e-mails that come to the site," she said. "We get those daily."
Carolina's unsolved-murder Web page recently passed its most critical test.
Tulley said although she doesn't know how many murders the site has helped solve, it
was responsible for clearing at least one recent case.
"We just had one several weeks ago," she said. "A man who lives in a small town saw a photograph on our site and contacted law
enforcement in the area where he lives. An arrest was made in that case."
North Carolina's site currently has about two dozen cases listed, with links providing additional information
about each case. Most cases contain several paragraphs of detailed information regarding the facts of the crime and background about the victim.
It also includes a nationwide
toll-free phone number and a space for listing missing children.
Vickie Pope, the crime analyst who helps oversee North Carolina's Web page, said the privacy of the Internet helps open
the door to public involvement.
"In the privacy of their home, people will look at sites such as ours," she said. "They can look at it without talking to the police or calling the newspaper,
and they feel more comfortable."
And, Pope said, people like solving mysteries.
"There is something inside everybody; they like to see if they can solve a mystery," she said.
"It gets them involved."
Pope said the site also opens the lines of communication between police officers in different jurisdictions.
"Officers see information and
contact other officers. A lot of things like that go on behind the scenes that we never find out about," she said, adding that local departments throughout North Carolina have added several cases to the site
"in the last day or two."
If any law enforcement agency can be credited for taking the Web site idea to a new level, it is the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department in Florida.
"I think more than anything it opens up the doors to other agencies," said Detective Robert Wolfort, who oversees the program. "Officers in other departments can go online in their
office, at their desk, and access information they otherwise wouldn't have."
According to Wolfort, the department's Web site has been a successful tool in spite of the fact that it has not
directly resulted in any murder cases being solved during its two-year existence.
"We've achieved identification on several unidentified bodies through the Web site," he said.
Palm Beach County's Web site is coordinated with the local homeless coalition — an important step in an area that has a warm winter climate and more than its share of transient residents.
The homeless coalition, according to Wolfort, has an identification site and helps collect data such as dental records and photographs.
In addition to the main Web site, each of
the 12 detectives in the department has a personal Web site dealing with cases they are working on.
"We also have a full-time cold-case detective in the department," Wolfort said. "Having a
seasoned veteran detective working on cold cases helps a lot."
Wolfort said his department has so far had no problems with the inadvertent posting of information that would help an
at-large killer by giving away too much information.
"Nothing's perfect, and I'm sure at some point a mistake will be made in that area," he said. "That's going to happen someday, but we
try to make sure it doesn't."
Wolfort said officers work with the department's crime analysts in determining what goes on the site in order to make sure the right information — not
investigative secrets — are placed on the site.
Wolfort also called the Web site "very inexpensive" and relatively easy to maintain.
Like his counterparts in North
Carolina, Wolfort is impressed with the Web site.
"It opens those doors," he said.
In a later installment, this series will examine the efforts of private citizens to solve
homicides through use of the Internet.