During a recent guest appearance on a Rogue Women Writers virtual event, I was asked about my background as a commander of special investigations and forensics in my former police agency. The question regarded public misconceptions about criminal investigations—especially as they pertain to forensic science.
I immediately had a recollection from back in my days as a rookie cop. A homeowner had called the police to report that his house had been egged. He told me he expected me to make an arrest shortly.
Had he caught the crime in progress on video? No.
Had he taken down a license plate as the getaway car screeched away? No.
Had the perpetrators left a note containing a confession? No.
How did he expect me to rush right out and slap cuffs on the offenders? Simple. He had preserved trace evidence for me to collect and send to the lab.
He escorted me around to the side of the house, where he had cordoned off the crime scene with traffic cones and string. I glanced down to see a cluster of broken eggshells lying in the grass. He had cleaned up the other residue but had made sure to leave this section undisturbed. His theory was that I would perform a two-phase analysis. First, I would dust some of the shells for latent fingerprints. Then, I would send the remaining fragments to the forensic lab to extract residual DNA, garnering a match from our database.
I had to explain to him that (1) there was no reason to believe any bodily fluids or hairs containing DNA would be present on the eggs; (2) the kit I had available at the time for latent evidence collection would likely destroy the prints. This would necessitate sending the broken bits to the lab, where more sophisticated equipment—like an electrostatic lifter—could be used. (3) With the backlog in cases, only felonies were being examined by overworked lab techs. And finally, (4) even if we managed to obtain a print or DNA, the perpetrators were almost certainly kids and police were prohibited from maintaining a database of juvenile fingerprints unless they had been charged with—and convicted of—a felony. In other words, the eggshells were not going to lead to the immediate arrest.
This public mindset was to play itself out on a larger scale during the infamous Beltway Sniper case several years later. One of the victims was killed in my department’s jurisdiction, and our agency joined the task force. At that point in my career, I oversaw the public information office, and fielded questions about how we were conducting our investigation.
Some were baffled we couldn’t make an arrest in short order. Surely, between trace evidence left at each scene, taunting messages left for the police, and databases maintained by law enforcement containing scads of information about various known criminals, we should have been able to put a name to the perpetrator within a day or two.
This is what I refer to as the “Bat Computer Phenomenon.” I will date myself by revisiting the original vintage Batman TV show starring Adam West. When the baddie du jour was terrorizing Gotham, Batman would enter data collected by police into the Bat Computer. After a few flashing lights and buzzes, the computer would spit out a strip of paper. As his sidekick Robin looked on in breathless anticipation, Batman would snatch the readout and announce the name of the perpetrator.
“Mr. Freeze is at it again!”
“The Riddler is up to his old tricks!”
Sometimes, the Bat Computer would offer even more information, including where and when the villain would likely strike next. Batman and Robin would then jump in the Batmobile and race to the spot to interrupt the crime in progress.
Nostalgic reflections and occasional frustrations aside, it turns out the creators of the iconic TV show were onto something. Their futuristic notions of crime fighting were somewhat prescient. The Bat Computer was the conceptual forerunner of three current modalities used in law enforcement:
- Behavioral profiling – The famous mind hunters at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit focus on MO (Modus Operandi) and signature (characteristics of the crime unique to the perpetrator) to help them link a series together and to understand the mind behind the behavior. The Penguin had a different MO and signature than the Riddler, Black Widow, or King Tut. The Bat Computer took this into account when calculating which archnemesis was committing the crime at hand.
- Forensic analysis – There are times when the types of materials used can be traced back to a unique source. The FBI maintains a massive database of samples for comparison. This has on occasion led to the identity of the person who purchased the equipment or material. If Commissioner Gordon and his officers found dusty particles at a scene, and later analysis by medical personnel determined that the victims were subdued with a blast of sneezing powder, the computer would tell them this was the work of Catwoman, who was known to use it.
- Predictive analysis – This is often described as the future of law enforcement. When I was a precinct captain, I worked with my crime analyst to survey data from various sectors in my area (my station served about 170,000 residents). To deploy resources appropriately, I had to stay on top of crime trends and anticipate spikes using algorithms. The Bat Computer did something similar on a micro level. Once a likely suspect was identified, the computer would suggest a likely next target. For example, if the suspect was the Joker, the computer would note any upcoming large bank deposits scheduled. Sure enough, Batman and Robin would learn that a shipment of gold would arrive at Gotham National Bank within the hour and head in that direction to intercept the Joker.
Similar to the advanced technology in the original Star Trek TV show, reality eventually caught up with science fiction—sort of (remember Captain Kirk’s flip-phone-like communicator?). We still don’t have a Bat Computer, but law enforcement has some amazing tools that help us zero in on a suspect from what at first can seem like little to no evidence. Maybe one day, we can stand by a computer, breathless with anticipation, and have it spit out the name of the villain. Until then, we’ll have to make do without the buzzers and flashing lights.