QUANTICO, Va. — More than 30 years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a revolutionary computer system in a bomb shelter two floors beneath the cafeteria of its national academy. Dubbed the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or ViCAP, it was a database designed to help catch the nation’s most violent offenders by linking together unsolved crimes. A serial rapist wielding a favorite knife in one attack might be identified when he used the same knife elsewhere. The system was rooted in the belief that some criminals’ methods were unique enough to serve as a kind of behavioral DNA — allowing identification based on how a person acted, rather than their genetic make-up.
Equally as important was the idea that local law enforcement agencies needed a way to better communicate with each other. Savvy killers had attacked in different jurisdictions to exploit gaping holes in police cooperation. ViCAP’s “implementation could mean the prevention of countless murders and the prompt apprehension of violent criminals,” the late Sen. Arlen Specter wrote in a letter to the Justice Department endorsing the program’s creation.
That’s what’s striking about ViCAP today: the paucity of information it contains. Only about 1,400 police agencies in the U.S., out of roughly 18,000, participate in the system. The database receives reports from far less than 1 percent of the violent crimes committed annually. It’s not even clear how many crimes the database has helped solve. The FBI does not release any figures. A review in the 1990s found it had linked only 33 crimes in 12 years.