In the 10 years since the Beltway Sniper attacks, both technological advances and a strengthening of ties between local and federal agencies have reshaped law enforcement in Montgomery County.
Before the mass shootings that rocked the Washington, D.C., region from Oct. 2 through 24, 2002, police departments in different counties largely respected their neighbor’s boundaries, and expected respect for theirs as well, said Drew Tracy, who led the multi-jurisdictional task force as a Montgomery County police captain during the shootings. Homicides, which is how the first shooting originally was classified, were almost exclusively the domain of a local police jurisdiction at the time. Federal agencies such as the FBI only stepped in to assist with federal crimes such as bank robberies, Tracy said.
“It’s interesting because, prior to those 22 days, most law enforcement could talk about a rough relationship with other jurisdictions at times when they had to work similar type cases,” Tracy said. “But, then, we had our backs against the wall. We had to put something together and we had to come back quickly.”
That sense of immediacy, motivated by the seriousness of the shootings and the need to quell growing panic, forced police from different departments and their federal counterparts to cooperate more closely than ever. To this day, the collaboration among law enforcement agencies in the National Capital Region remains a model for other regions, said Capt. Marcus Jones, current commander of the Montgomery County police’s Major Crimes Division.
“That was, I hope, a once-in-a-lifetime incident. We have had no incident remotely close to it in terms of its scope and the number of other agencies involved in the investigation,” Jones said. “But today that’s a pretty consistent law enforcement relationship. We work with the FBI often in open homicide cases, for instance, and we can turn to the ATF not just for firearms investigations, but in drug cases, as well.”
Lasting relationships also were formed between the tactical personnel responding to the shootings at the street level, said Sgt. Jeff Nyce, a 13-year veteran of the Montgomery County police’s SWAT team who remembers working closely with members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and Maryland State Police tactical experts, in particular.
“The Discovery Building incident [in September 2010] was a prime example of the relationship with Maryland State Police. When the incident went down we called the leader of their tactical unit and he sent his guys down to assist us at the snap of a finger,” Nyce said, citing the multi-jurisdictional approach to the hostage situation in the Discovery Building in downtown Silver Spring. “We routinely tap into each other’s resources and rely on one another.”
Resources are another strong point, said Capt. Darryl McSwain, who commands the department’s Special Operations Division overseeing the SWAT team, K-9 units and other specialized response units. Now that the post-9/11 grants are drying up for advanced tactical equipment and training, specialty units across the region are turning to cross-training and even limited equipment-sharing to fill their needs, McSwain said.
“Not every team has the same number of assets, whether it be personnel or equipment, so we know when an incident goes down, one group may need one thing and another group something else,” McSwain said. “Everyone’s always talking with everyone else or holding meetings, usually on a monthly basis, to discuss different responses and tactics.”
Technology is another area that has expanded rapidly in the past decade. Shortly after he was tasked with organizing the joint task force in October 2002, former Montgomery County police Sgt. Nick DeCarlo was faced with the downside of his federal and local partners rushing to help. The sheer size of the task force was rapidly growing beyond its own efficiency.
“You can almost lose sight of the reason you were there in the first place. … There has to be, in the midst of this task force, an investigative component or group that stays focused on the task at hand and not the logistics of running and coordinating the investigation,” DeCarlo said, adding the task force generated more than 50,000 “lead sheets” from tips called in by the public alone during the three weeks of the sniper investigation.
Current databases are much easier for detectives to manage, Jones said, explaining the department has capitalized on developments in electronic information gathering and analysis. Email and text message tips are becoming more and more frequent, and new systems now make it easier for detectives to identify pertinent information from the mass of information the department receives, Jones said.
“We did have a tip that came in early where a guy said that this John Muhammad guy from Tacoma, [Wash.,] was likely involved,” Jones said. “Well, [Muhammad] got pulled over in Baltimore city or right outside of Baltimore at some point in those three weeks, so we would have developed him as a suspect much more quickly had we had that system back then.”
An increase in the number of high-quality security surveillance cameras in shopping centers and traffic intersections, as well as the license plate scanners currently used by the department also could have been helpful in breaking the case 10 years ago, Jones added.