Almost six million times a day, law enforcement officers from around the country conduct online searches of the FBI's electronic repository of criminal justice records called the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). They’re looking for information and possible leads on fugitives, missing persons, terrorists, convicted sex offenders, violent gang members, stolen property, and more.
Sometimes, though, agencies don’t have enough data for an electronic search or need additional information no longer available. So the FBI offers another investigative tool—the off-line search—which searches information in the database a different way or looks through records no longer available on the NCIC server.
During the past fiscal year, CJIS ran more than 22,000 off-line searches for law enforcement.
Kinds of off-line searches include:
● Use of non-unique personal descriptors, like sex, height, estimated age, and hair color (these descriptors can be used in online searches but only in conjunction with other identifiers, like a person’s name and date of birth);
● Partial information searches (i.e., an officer only has three or four characters of a license plate or only half of a vehicle identification number);
● Checking purged records (records that have been removed by law enforcement, or as result of varying retention schedules); and
● Searches of NCIC’s transaction logs, which may uncover other queries on the same suspect made by another law enforcement agency (can help establish a suspect’s whereabouts).
Perhaps one of the more well-known examples of an off-line NCIC search involved Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
● After identifying McVeigh as the renter of the explosives-laden Ryder truck, investigators passed the FBI his name for all available information on him. An off-line search of NCIC’s transaction log showed that about 90 minutes after the bombing, the Oklahoma State Highway Patrol made an inquiry on McVeigh. Armed with this information, investigators contacted the highway patrol and found that McVeigh was sitting—two days after the bombing—in a nearby jail cell on unrelated weapons charges.
A more recent example of how off-line searches can make a difference:
● On September 26, 2009, a 13-year-old girl was reported missing from Daviess County, Kentucky, and her information—including details about the convicted sex offender she was last seen with—was entered into NCIC. That night, an agent from the FBI's Louisville office, working with local authorities, contacted CJIS and requested an off-line search of the suspect’s license plate. Very quickly, they discovered that the Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, Sheriff’s Office had run a check on the license plate earlier that day (before Kentucky officials had a chance to enter the suspect’s plate number into NCIC). Officials in Wisconsin were notified, and the man was located by 4 a.m. the next day in a Wisconsin hotel. The girl was recovered safely.
Both online and off-line NCIC searches are just another example of how the FBI's leveraging technology and information-sharing to track down criminals.
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