The DC Sniper Rampage: The Biggest Police Debacle of the Century?Tags U.S. History
Those who forget police debacles could be the victims of the next law enforcement fiasco. Former Montgomery County, Maryland, police chief Charles Moose passed away on Thanksgiving Day. He became famous as the most prominent law enforcement official during a three-week sniper rampage in the Washington area in 2002. The Washington Post ran a front-page piece on his death, and career and local officials hailed him as a “great leader” and “terrific” while the media touted him as a “hero.”
But Moose was the mastermind of one of the biggest law enforcement pratfalls in this century. After the snipers were finally captured after killing ten people, Moose declared, “Twenty-two days felt like forever. It could have easily been 22 weeks.” Actually, if private citizens and the media had not acted proactively, it could have been twenty-two weeks. Criminologist Susan Paisner observed in late 2002 in the Washington Post that the two sniper suspects “were caught despite [Moose] and the task force's efforts, not because of them.”
Blunders by Moose, the first black police chief in Montgomery County, and other law enforcement officials boosted the sniper death toll. Because the first shootings occurred in Montgomery County, Moose took charge of the local law enforcement response.
The sniper case represents a deadly case of racial profiling gone awry. Moose decided early on that the killers were white guys in a white van. As a result, police ignored a slew of evidence that the killers were actually black guys in a ratty old car with out-of-state license plates. Several eyewitnesses reported to police that they had seen an old Chevrolet Caprice at the scenes of shootings, but police scorned their reports. They spotted the snipers’ blue car and recorded its out-of-state license plates at least ten different times during the month of the killings; the vehicle was reported to have been stopped or seen five times at roadblocks established immediately after shootings. But because they were searching for a white van or truck, police disregarded the suspects again and again. One federal investigator later complained to the Los Angeles Times, “The car was screaming, ‘Stop me.’ It’s dilapidated. It’s got Jersey tags. It’s got a homemade window tint.”
President George W. Bush announced that the sniper attacks were “a form of terrorism” and boasted of “lending all the resources of the Federal Government” to the investigation. But the FBI were as incompetent and incorrigible as Moose. Prior to the snipers’ rampage, the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ignored reports from five different people in Washington State (where John Allen Muhammad lived) who warned about Muhammad’s comments about killing police, his interest in buying silencers for his rifle, and his visit to a gunsmith to inquire about modifying the rifle to make it more easily concealed.
More than seven hundred FBI agents were involved in the case. FBI trainees were brought in to staff the telephone tip lines at the Montgomery County Police headquarters. The FBI, scorning the technological revolutions of the prior half century, relied on the same methods the bureau had used to pursue John Dillinger in the 1930s. Instead of entering tips from the public into a computer database, FBI trainees would write out the information by hand and stack the reports into piles marked “immediate,” “priority,” or “routine.” FBI agents would then drive the stacks of reports to other locales where the snipers attacked, including Fairfax County and Richmond, Virginia. The Washington Post reported complaints by numerous lawmen that “the FBI’s problems handling thousands of phone tips are slowing and hampering the probe.”
When the FBI trainees were not laboriously scrawling down the latest tip, they were busy hanging up on the snipers. In a note attached to a tree after the ninth shooting, the snipers complained that operators at the tip line had hung up on them five times. The note denounced police “incompitence” [sic] and declared, “We have tried to contact you to start negotiation. These people took [our] calls for a hoax or a joke, so your failure to respond has cost you five lives.”
At the scene of an Ashland, Virginia, shooting, the killers left a note with a demand for money in a ziplock bag. But no law enforcement official bothered to read the note before it was shipped off to check for fingerprints. The FBI and the police dismally failed to exploit the bevy of clues in the note and in the other material in the ziplock bag. If the note had been publicized—like the Unabomber’s manifesto—savvy citizens might have fingered at least one of the culprits much sooner.
Instead of using common sense and exploiting excellent leads, the feds unleashed Pentagon spy planes to track all vehicles in the entire Washington area. Bush Pentagon appointee John Poindexter declared that the sniper case illustrated how total information awareness surveillance could have help detect the killer’s car. The spy planes may have violated the Posse Comitatus Act (which prohibits using the military for domestic law enforcement) but they provided no information that solved the case.
Moose took a command-and-control approach that left citizens in the dark at the same time that law enforcement ignored a tidal wave of damning evidence. "When we have people from the media interviewing witnesses and publishing reports, we get confusion," Chief Moose complained. He was enraged when the Washington Post and a local television channel reported that a tarot card had been found at the site, later blaming them for five additional deaths due to the disclosure. At a press conference, Moose shouted, “I have not received any message that the citizens of Montgomery County want Channel 9 or The Washington Post or any other media outlet to solve this case. If they do, then let me know.”
But it was a leak of key information that led to the apprehension of the snipers. News media had been listening to police scanners and, on October 23, heard the renewed suspicions about the Caprice. Both MSNBC and CNN broadcast the license plate and car description hours. Within six hours, an alert citizen phoned in a tip that the suspects’ car was at an interstate rest stop in Frederick County, Maryland which a SWAT team quickly swarmed to arrest the suspects.
The initial sainthood that Moose received after the snipers were apprehended was truncated by his buck chasing. Montgomery County officials are prohibited from profiting from their government jobs but Moose speedily signed a $170,000 book deal to reveal his account of the sniper manhunt. He resigned under pressure after a local ethics commission refused to let him profit from the case. Numerous other government officials complained that the speedy publication of Moose’s book risked undermining the prosecution of the snipers. The commission also discovered that Moose violated ethics rules by failing to disclose a $10,000 payment he received from Marriott hotels after he claimed to be a victim of racial discrimination while staying at a resort in Hawaii. Moose initially demanded $200,000 from Marriott after he wandered into an unfinished area of the resort reserved for employees. “Moose was confronted by a hotel employee. When the chief was asked to produce proof he was a guest at the hotel, in the form of a room key, an argument ensued,” the Washington Post reported. If only I could pocket ten grand each time a hotel staffer asked me a question!
The real lesson of the 2002 sniper rampage was that neither local nor federal law enforcement could be trusted to protect citizens against dire threats. The Washington area was traumatized for weeks by two dimwitted psychopaths who rode around brazenly shooting people from the trunk of their ancient Chevrolet. If a team of trained, savvy terrorists had launched the same type of attacks, the death toll would likely have been vastly higher.
Commenting on Moose’s death, Montgomery County executive Marc Elrich praised him for providing “a calming presence in the midst of the terror and fear that consumed our County.” Politicians valorize political appointees to shroud government failures. Don’t expect local politicians to admit that Moose had blood on his hands due to his incompetence in capturing the snipers.