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Retailer Target Branches Out Into Police Work

Computer screens at Target's forensics lab promote its ties with law enforcement.
Computer screens at Target's forensics lab promote its ties with law enforcement. (By Ben Garvin For The Washington Post)

"It struck me that following repeat criminals was really an inventory-management problem," Garvis said. He turned to the partnerships Target had already developed with law enforcement -- Target's assets protection group is headed by Brad Brekke, a former FBI agent, and is staffed by former police officers.

Working with local and state jurisdictions, Target donated what boiled down to tracking technology and database translation, as well as employees to work on the project. "This kind of thing has been tried before," said Richard W. Stanek, a former Minnesota public safety commissioner. "The extra thing that Target brought was neutrality -- and mediation. They physically brought the different arms of law enforcement together and helped get us talking." For several years, a database called CriMNet has been used in Minnesota in the prosecution of the felonies. It is one of several alternatives under consideration for a national criminal database.

As the project gained footing, Target investigators began working with law enforcement agencies in sting operations and surveillance concerning crime in their stores. Target began helping law enforcement on cases that had nothing to do with its business. It wasn't long before Target was analyzing criminal evidence for police, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"One of the nation's top forensics labs is located at Target's headquarters building in downtown Minneapolis," said FBI Special Agent Paul McCabe, who has worked with Target. "They have abilities and technology that far surpasses many law enforcement agencies in the country."

Target forensics investigators spend 45 percent of their time offering pro-bono assistance to law enforcement. Target declined to say how many cases that involves per year.

Visiting the forensics lab entails a trip to Target's corporate security department, past red-and-white bull's-eyes and up the elevator to the second floor. Through password-protected doors is a windowless room -- the desks packed with computers and flat-screen monitors, and a wall decorated with the badges from the law enforcement agencies that Target has helped. Motion-detection sensors linked to silent alarms sweep the ceiling above the locked evidence room, and only four employees have access to the facility.

The lab's first big outside criminal case was the Houston arson-homicide in 2004. Thomas D. Wood, a senior arson investigator for the Houston Fire Department, oversaw the case and was the first law enforcement official to use Target's lab.

A woman and two children died in the fire. A surveillance tape from a nearby convenience store showed what appeared to be two juvenile suspects buying gasoline hours before the fire, but the tape was damaged and Wood struggled to restore it. He happened to go to lunch with a Target investigator, who mentioned the forensics lab. Wood sent the tape the next day.

"Not only were the Target people able to clean the tape, they also made still shots from it that were used by the boys' school principal to identify them," Wood said. Both suspects confessed and are now serving prison sentences.

As word spread about what Target's lab had accomplished in the Texas arson case, the requests for help soon became overwhelming. "We had cops in here every day -- chairs pulled up next to my computer," said Target forensic investigator Craig Thrane. "We finally had to make criteria for the cases we take. The only ones we do now involve violent felonies."

At a work station in the lab, Thrane popped a videotape into a machine with 60 tiny knobs, then tapped a series of commands into his computer. "This is a video from a bank robbery that the FBI brought to me to try to figure out who the criminal is. In this case, it is a gun woman -- very unusual."

Thrane measured the robber's height electronically and zoomed in on some of her features. "Notice the space between the corner of her mouth and her lip -- there is something unusual about it -- I'm guessing she is missing teeth," he said, making several more measurements of unique characteristics that he sent to the FBI. A week later, word arrived that agents nabbed a suspect -- a 40-year-old woman who was a methamphetamine addict. "They also told me she lost her teeth," Thrane said.

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