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Public safety technologies of today and their potential impact on the DC sniper case

The conclusion of the DC sniper case played out yesterday, as John Allen Muhammad was executed for his shooting rampage in and around the Washington, DC area. Muhammad, along with Lee Boyd Malvo killed 10 people and wounded 3 others over the span of three weeks in October 2002. Muhammad was sentenced to death in September 2003 and was given a lethal injection yesterday. As we look back on the events that unfolded over the three weeks in 2002, it is hard not to think of the implications new and advanced public safety technologies would have had on the situation.

For example, closed circuit television or surveillance cameras could have played an integral part in identifying and capturing the sniper. While the technology was present back in 2002, advances in optical imagery, zooming functions, and wireless capabilities could have aided in police efforts to collect and store evidence.

Another technology that could have played a key role would be that of license plate recognition systems. It could be argued that the license plate of the blue sedan Muhammad was driving may have been quickly identifiable had the DC metro area been equipped with such technology. Utilizing license plate recognition technology in conjunction with traffic cameras and additional surveillance systems could have allowed police to track the movements of Muhammad.

Gunshot detection systems would have been another great feature to have during the shootings. If officers could have utilized this acoustic technology, chances are they could have been alerted to the scene faster. Currently, gunshot detection systems are positioned more for urban areas, but since the shootings happened in suburban areas, this technology will need to expand its coverage. This technology coupled with surveillance cameras could have given officials additional evidence of the area in which the gun was fired.

One final piece of technology that could have assisted public safety officers would be that of automatic fingerprint identification systems (AFIS). These systems, if tied into a regional or national database could reduce the time spent processing fingerprints. It was the fingerprints gathered around the area that lead to the identification of Muhammad.

While hindsight is always 20/20, it is encouraging to see the advances in public safety technology since the DC sniper shootings. It is also encouraging to see more local agencies pursuing these types of technologies as seen in the economic stimulus requests for public safety funds. The only problem is that events like the DC sniper case can happen without knowing and can highlight the lack of resources an agency has. Lucky, public safety technologies are quick to react and can provide effective solutions to combat these events.

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