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Sniper Eludes Police Despite Video

October 17, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Like anyone else who moves around, the elusive Washington-area sniper is a captive of sorts. The spread of cameras in public places almost guarantees that his image has been captured on some tape or computer disk.

So far, that has not led authorities to the killer of nine people over the past two weeks. Eyewitness reports are so sketchy police cannot produce a composite image useful to the public, and security video has apparently not nailed down his identity.

Still, investigators are obtaining footage taken at stores, banks and buildings near the shooting sites. They have viewed images from cameras that monitor traffic flow, as well as tapes from police cruisers that responded to the latest shooting, Monday night in Virginia.

Now military surveillance planes are pitching in, adding more scrutiny to a manhunt frustrated by a killer’s ability to slip out of sight.

The average American is caught on camera eight to 10 times a day, law enforcement officials say.

If that statistic is right or even close, ``it would seem a pretty good chance that the killer would probably be on a camera somewhere,″ said Dave Lang, a video forensics expert at Veridian Corp. in Arlington, Va., which works with law enforcement agencies.

In response to the shooter’s audacious attacks at shopping malls, gas stations and a school, businesses are adapting their security measures to deter the sniper from preying on customers. Some area gas stations are pointing cameras away from the pumps and into the space beyond in hopes of nabbing the sniper on tape.

Video forensics examiners caution that adjusting a camera angle might prove futile if the technology cannot pick up images from farther away. As it is, cameras are often clumsily set up, catching the tops of people’s heads instead of their faces.

In the sniper case, ground-based cameras are now being supplemented with surveillance from the sky.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has approved the use of the Army’s RC-7 Airborne Reconnaissance Low plane and at least one other type of aircraft with surveillance capabilities beyond those of local police forces, defense officials said.

The four-engine RC-7 can provide high-resolution imagery and night vision, suitable for tracking the light-colored van that investigators have linked to the shootings. It also has the benefit of looking like many other small planes, so it won’t stand out, and its infrared sensors can detect gunfire on the ground.

Whether human eyes or cameras eventually provide a break in this case, one thing remains certain: Surveillance in public places is becoming more prevalent as the technology improves and becomes more affordable.

Montgomery County, Md., where five of the sniper’s victims were shot, rotates about a dozen cameras at 15 intersections to catch red-light runners, and has other cameras in many more places to view traffic.

Police are not saying how helpful all those lenses have been thus far in the hunt for the sniper.

``It may provide the law enforcement or the authorities a hint, a clue as to who may be doing this, but it’s not the answer to their questions,″ said Alex Tabb, associate managing director of Kroll Inc., a security consulting firm. ``It’s not, ’Let’s throw video cameras everywhere and we’ll be safe.‴

The best known descriptions of the sniper have come from eyewitnesses to Monday night’s slaying of 47-year-old Linda Franklin in a Home Depot parking lot in Falls Church, Va.

Surveillance technology is being increasingly employed in criminal investigations.

Sept. 11 hijackers Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari were seen getting money from bank machines, a gas station and a Wal-Mart the day before the attacks. Last month, a camera in an Indiana parking lot showed a woman, later charged, hitting and shaking her young daughter.

In Tampa, Fla., and Virginia Beach, Va., face recognition technology compares people in crowds with a database that includes wanted criminals.

That has brought complaints from civil liberties groups and citizens concerned about having their every move recorded, whether walking through the park or running a red light.


Phone line for tips to police task force: 1-888-324-9800.

E-mail for tips to police: taskforce(at)co.mo.md.us

On the Net:

Montgomery County police: http://www.co.mo.md.us

FBI: http://www.fbi.gov

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: http://www.atf.treas.gov

Montgomery County traffic monitoring: http://www.dpwt.com

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