“We were able to use the information in a good way to save taxpayers money rather than haphazardly throwing things against the wall and seeing if it sticks,” said Virginia State Police Capt. Steven W. Lambert of the Virginia Fusion Center, which coordinates statewide investigations, including the case of the five shootings at military buildings.
When Yonathan Melaku was arrested at Arlington National Cemetery in summer 2011, months after he started his string of shootings, police had been expecting him there.
They had analyzed hundreds of factors, such as the gunman’s sightlines, access points and escape routes. His escape route was particularly important; he stayed close to highways.
With the data, they produced a list of hundreds of likely target areas, along with the probability that the shooter would visit each one.
It helped them figure out where to focus resources and what to protect.
It didn’t lead to Melaku’s arrest; he was stopped in the cemetery behaving erratically and lugging a backpack loaded with spray paint, spent shell casings and homemade bomb-making materials.
The case, led by the FBI, ended with Melaku pleading guilty to the shootings, and in January he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
But the accuracy of the prediction — placing Arlington in the top tier of his possible targets — seemed to prove the technology’s potential in helping to focus large, complex investigations, Lambert said.
“This helps us make sense of our data,” Lambert said. “In the Fusion Center, I often say we’re drowning in information and yet starved for knowledge.”
Other data police analyzed included terrain of the crime scenes, public transit access and the economics of surrounding neighborhoods.
The technology initially was developed using satellite images and other data to help U.S. troops anticipate where explosives were buried in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is one in a string of wartime science applications — high-speed license plate readers, mobile fingerprint devices, facial recognition software — being used by police in local crime-fighting.
Around for decades
Predictive technology has been around for decades, going back to when the U.S. Air Force needed to anticipate when its machines and equipment would need replacement.
In an updated form, it is similar to what retailers such as Amazon and Wal-Mart use to anticipate buyer behavior, said Colleen McCue of DigitalGlobe, the private company that developed the technology and worked with law enforcement on the Melaku case.