How does a national dragnet work?

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April 28 2006 6:24 PM

We Arrested 9,000 Fugitives Last Week

Why can't we arrest 9,000 more next week?

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Federal agencies and local police forces completed a massive roundup of fugitives in 27 Western states last Sunday. The operation—called "Falcon II"—nabbed more than 9,000 suspects in a seven-day stretch. Does that mean the police knew where they were before last week but hadn't bothered to arrest them?

In some cases, yes. Local police forces don't have the money or manpower to pursue every fugitive in their files. Some counties have backlogs that run into the tens of thousands of names. So, even if the cops have a pretty good idea about where a particular suspect is, they might not get the chance to apprehend him without outside help.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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The U.S. Marshals work with local police year-round to help them track down fugitives. But the cooperation becomes more intense during brief, focused operations like Falcon II, when the Marshals encourage state and county agencies to divert as many resources as they can to a large-scale dragnet. The feds supply any special equipment and cover the overtime pay for local cops. (In Falcon II, this came out to more than $500,000.)

Although Falcon II officially lasted from April 17 to April 23, federal and local law enforcement agencies had been cooperating for a month or two prior. The Marshals gathered leads on the most dangerous offenders in each area and made an effort to track them down. By the time the operation "started" on the 17th, the agents and officers already had a pretty good idea of where to find their marks.

So, why did they wait to make the arrests? It's not uncommon for police to sit on leads for a while and then round people up all at once. Proponents of this technique say it has several benefits. First, it generates publicity, which may serve as a deterrent to someone thinking about going on the lam. Second, it can be more efficient than going after suspects one at a time.

One way to save money with a big roundup is to set up elaborate hoaxes that catch multiple suspects. The feds did just that for Operation FIST-7, which netted 3,309 fugitives in 1984. (Large-scale manhunts go back at least as far as FIST-1, in 1981.) Fugitives were informed through their relatives that they'd been selected at random to receive a free dinner, limousine tour of the city, and tickets to a Boy George concert. To collect their prize, they were to wait for the limo at a certain street corner. The cops only had to set up the hoax once, and they could use it again and again.

Bonus Explainer: What happens if a fugitive who could have been arrested earlier commits a crime while the police are waiting to round him up? Nothing. It's a complicated issue, but the police generally aren't liable for the actions of a suspect whom they might have apprehended.

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Explainer thanks Don Hines of the U.S. Marshals and David Klinger of the University of Missouri, St. Louis.