by Roger Ham

What It’s Like To…Catch A Killer

Dec 15, 20043 mins
IT Leadership

Being CIO of the LAPD was the most intense, challenging and gratifying job I’ve ever had. If my systems went down, people could die.

One day stands out in particular. On Aug. 10, 1999, as my fellow CIOs and I were scrambling to ready our systems for Y2K, a 911 call came in. Shots had been fired at a Jewish Community Center filled with children.

The event would test all 900 people who worked for me and every facet of the network for which I was responsible—especially the backbone systems that enabled emergency communications and coordination for 911 dispatchers, officers on the scene, detectives, air support units, SWAT teams, K-9 units and ambulances. We had to get the right people to the scene in a matter of seconds.

The first officers on the scene saw a 16-year-old girl with several gunshot wounds. A bloody trail led into the building. The officers didn’t know how many shooters there were, and more important, where they were.

This is when intelligence and information is most critical, yet most scant. Officers in the field, with their lives on the line, expect that their radios and wireless computers in their cars will not fail. IT is their lifeline.

Meanwhile, critical information was buzzing between dispatchers and officers: “Two shooting victims found in the lobby, still more children here,” radioed the officers. Officers later discovered a wounded 6-year-old and dozens of dazed children. All of the children were safely evacuated; a Los Angeles Times photo of officers leading a line of children out of the school would become famous.

After a search of all the rooms in the building, the area was deemed all clear. LAPD personnel quickly set up a command post in a nearby church. Parked near the church was a department SUV loaded with high-tech gear that provided real-time connectivity to the dispatchers and the central-computer-aided dispatch system, live video feeds from the helicopters above, and radio communications capabilities with all of the officers in the area.

Back in the command center, information about other events was coming in over the 911 phone lines. Witnesses told dispatchers that someone had just held a woman at gunpoint and had stolen her car. Another caller said that a postal worker had been shot and killed on his route. We began to connect the dots; these gruesome incidents must be related.

Then, officers responding to the call about the carjacking discovered a van loaded with explosives near where the incident took place. Detectives, with the help of law enforcement databases, were able to identify the owner of the van as Buford Furrow, who later turned out to be the gunman involved in all the malicious activities. Furrow, a member of the Aryan Nations, turned himself in to the FBI the next day.

When everything outside the command center was in turmoil, we had to stay calm to ensure that radio and computer systems would not fail.

You don’t work for the police department because you have to; you work for the police department because you love to.

—As told to Thomas Wailgum