Nickname Data Help D.C. Police Pursue Criminals

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007

For three years, D.C. detectives investigated one killing after another in the Columbia Heights area. When they asked their informants who was responsible, one name kept coming up: "Head."

Head bragged about a shooting. Head was seen kicking over a memorial for one of the victims. Head told people on the block that he was about to kill a witness.

That was just what they needed.

Detectives said they used a little-known database of nicknames to find out that Head was probably Azariah Israel, 32, an ex-convict who had spent time in jail for a gun crime and was already charged in another slaying. They kept working the street and charged him this summer in four more killings.

In a business in which information can be the difference between life and death, D.C. police often turn to specialized databases that keep records of nicknames, tattoos and other identifying features. The nickname database has been increasingly helping investigators solve crimes, especially in neighborhoods where even best friends sometimes don't know each other's real names.

"Almost everybody on the street goes by street names," said Inspector Brian Bray of the narcotics and special investigations unit.

The repository has thousands of entries -- such as Fat Boy, Boo Boo, Meatball, Money Cash, Big Stupid, Butter, P-Funk, Dirt and Ed Lover. Many evoke real or fictional gangsters -- Gotti, Godfather, Corleone.

"If our informant says the gunman's name is Soup, we contact our officers and say, 'You know a guy named Soup?' " Bray said. "If that doesn't work, our database is pretty good. It narrows it down. What does he look like? Where does he live? Then we figure out, yeah, he's the same guy. That's Soup."

D.C. police have been tracking nicknames for decades, typically collecting the names when people are arrested. Years ago, the information was filed on paper, and sifting through the records was cumbersome; now, the process is high-tech and much faster. When investigators get a hit in the database, information about the suspect pops up, usually including height, weight, address and criminal history, as well as a photo.

Problems can arise when an informant identifies a suspect by a common nickname. To guard against picking up the wrong person, detectives check the suspect's physical description and address, pull a photo and go back to their source. The nickname, police said, is a starting point, not the foundation for a criminal prosecution.

"We'll show a photo spread to our informant," Bray said. "If it's the same guy -- boom -- we get an arrest warrant."

Other urban centers such as New York and Los Angeles also collect nicknames. In the Washington region, police in Prince George's and Montgomery counties have nickname and tattoo databases, and in Virginia, investigative teams such as an anti-gang task force use them.

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