Law enforcement officers executing warrants often walk into unpredictable situations. Thirty years ago the Supreme Court wrote: “An in-home arrest puts the officer at the disadvantage of being on his adversary's ‘turf’ ... more to be feared than [when in]... open, more familiar surroundings.”
That fear of what’s on the other side of the door can lead to bad outcomes for everyone involved. From 2009-2019, at least 73 officers died while serving warrants, and a crowdsourced database contains dozens of incidents just in 2020 where an attempt to serve a warrant ended in the death of a suspect or other civilian.
There are more than 5.7 million open arrest warrants in the United States today, for crimes ranging from murder and rape to robbery and assault. How do we solve the puzzle of avoiding those potentially explosive situations while ensuring the safety of law enforcement officers and their communities?
These are the hard questions that police chiefs and sheriffs are asking themselves. There are no easy fixes, and good intentions aren’t always enough.
In the case of warrants, one issue is that many individuals with outstanding warrants are picked up on other charges but then released back into the community due to a lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies.
This is a decades-old problem, but the solution has eluded us since at least 1967, when the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database was created under FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in an attempt to establish a centralized information system that could be utilized by all the various branches of law enforcement.
However, just over one-third of all warrants are included in the NCIC database, leaving the majority unaddressed.
In the modern era, the technical problems are much easier to address. Nearly 3,000 law enforcement agencies already share arrest information with VINE, a victim notification network, which allows survivors, victims of crime and other concerned citizens to access timely and reliable information about offenders or criminal cases in U.S. jails and prisons.
What began in response to a horrible tragedy has become a powerful tool for the protection and empowerment of victims, and the same technology could fundamentally change the process of serving warrants. Instead of relying on each of the 18,000-plus law enforcement agencies in this country to sift through and discern which individuals have outstanding warrants, a timely notification system could provide access to a nationwide database that eliminates the doubt, decreasing the chance of future bad outcomes.
In one Tennessee county, approximately half of those wanted in relation to these outstanding warrants were transient, often crossing county and state lines to avoid apprehension. By linking the unserved arrest warrant list to a real-time incarceration database, officers can receive alerts anytime an individual on the list is booked into custody across the U.S. and ensure they are detained until transfer.
The ability to collect wanted persons from other incarceration facilities sanitizes the warrants process, eliminating the risk to officers and civilians that is heightened when individuals are collected from homes or off the street.
This one change won’t solve all the issues. The process of law enforcement reform will require hard work, patience, mutual respect and trust. There will always be situations in which law enforcement officers need to serve warrants in person on-location. But every bit of improvement can save lives and build the trust needed to make progress toward real reform.
In this moment, we must take concrete steps that will aid in building trust on both sides. No one wants to see more innocent lives lost, so let us make that unilateral commitment and build towards a safer future.
Glenn Archer leads the Justice Intelligence unit at Appriss Insights, expanding upon innovative uses of data and analytics to enhance law enforcement effectiveness and public safety.