Criminals can run, but surging computer technology -- including digitized color mug shots -- is making it ever harder for them to hide.
Before the turn of the century, electronic packages containing the color photos, fingerprints, detailed physical description and criminal history "rap sheet" will be available to law enforcement agencies everywhere.
People may not even have to go to the post office to check out the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" -- in a few years they may be on the Internet, available on home computers.
Maryland, in the forefront of using the new technology, will unveil its system when the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Central Booking Center opens next month Baltimore.
For example, a detective interviewing a rape victim in Ocean City could do a computer search using a description, or even an overheard nickname. That could produce an electronic photograph from the central file in Baltimore from which the victim could identify the assailant.
"This will be a leapfrog of communications and will address the mobility of criminals," said Stan Zack, chief of advanced technologies in the FBI's criminal justice information services division.
Law enforcement agencies nationwide are already linked to the FBI's computerized fingerprint system.
The Justice Department is working on a Joint Automated Booking Station to provide a digitized national and international network of expanded criminal information.
Maryland will be ready to link up immediately, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the public safety agency. "We're ahead now, nationally and internationally, in using computer-based criminal justice information and criminal history information," he said.
Meanwhile, however, as the technology continues to evolve and expand, national and international concerns have emerged about integration of the various computer systems used in different states and countries.
As a first step, more than 100 representatives of American, British and Canadian law enforcement agencies and computer companies met in Maryland last week to recommend minimum standards for capturing, storing and transmitting images and information.
The three-day seminar in Gaithersburg was sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the FBI.
Maryland is already expanding its network within the state. With a federal grant, the state is linking Harford, Howard, Frederick, Prince George's, St. Mary's and Wicomico counties to its automated booking system, Mr. Sipes said. The state is also working with other counties to add them, he said.
Maryland is committed to the use of technology and the Central Booking Center is an example of high-tech and inter-agency cooperation, Mr. Sipes said. It will have plenty of information to process, since Maryland has about 260,000 arrests a year -- 13th highest in the country, Mr. Sipes said.
Mr. Sipes said the department is also collecting data on previously unidentified fingerprints from crime scenes and since last year has been fingerprinting arrested juveniles. He said this is expected to lead to the solution of many crimes.
"Central Booking is the beginning of a statewide outreach to ensure that all offenders can be identified positively," Mr. Sipes said. The electronic system will also be able to track inmates throughout the prison system.
On the Internet
Nationally, once the FBI erects what its scientists call "fire walls" to prevent electronic tampering, photographs and records of the bureau's "Ten Most Wanted" will put on the Internet, further reducing criminals' ability to hide.
"Continual advances in digital imaging technology will enable federal, state and local law enforcement to provide faster and more accurate service," Mr. Zack said.
"In less than five years, before the year 2000, systems will be communicating across the country through the common denominator of standards," he said.
The Los Angeles Police Department was the first in the country to "marry" fingerprints and mug shots, Mr. Zack said.
An FBI pilot project in 1989 showed that in using different vendors' hardware and software, black and white photos and fingerprints could be transmitted over communications lines to a two-way radio base station transmitter and then over a radio frequency to receiving equipment in a patrol car.
This led the FBI toward standardized electronic transmission of fingerprints, which the American National Standards Institute accepted in 1993 as the Integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System.
The next challenge, Mr. Zack said, is develop a comparable industry standard for the capture and electronic transmission of facial images. He said the voluntary standards will permit an exchange of information among agencies which may have various types of equipment, but meet a common minimum standard.
Among the advantages of being able to exchange facial images electronically are to thwart terrorists from obtaining false passports and visas, facilitating the solution of bank robberies and aiding officers on surveillance duty, Mr. Zack said.
The FBI is moving its Identification Division to West Virginia, where everything will be electronic. The FBI no longer processes regular photographs submitted by police agencies and only processes electronic submissions, he said.
In closing the seminar, Mr. Zack said, "We are setting the pace for the future. This is a framework for an exchange of information to become better crime fighters."