FBI Web site puts bank robbery suspects' faces before the public

The Baltimore Sun

The bank robber didn't even try to conceal his identity.

He leaned across the counter of the Chevy Chase Bank in Gaithersburg and practically shoved his face into the surveillance camera, giving authorities one of the clearest pictures of a robber they had ever seen.

Newspapers published the shot, and television stations flashed it on the air.

FBI Special Agent Jeff Cisar was sure that authorities would have him quickly locked up.

But no tips came in.

And Cisar was left thinking.

"Most of these aren't going to make the front page, especially if it's a note-job bank robbery," Cisar said. "And if it runs in back of the paper, it's probably going to be thrown away and image is gone. And on TV, the image flashes on the screen and is gone. There's got to be a way to keep the photo out there."

It was October 2006, and Cisar, who works in Rockville but is assigned to the FBI's Baltimore field office, came up with his version of America's Most Wanted. He created a Web site, found private funding and puts bank surveillance pictures on the Internet - www.bankbandits.org.

The site has taken off and is being copied by law enforcement agencies across the country. Cisar said officials are working on one big bank robbery site that would combine the resources of FBI offices nationwide.

I met Cisar on Tuesday in New York, where we appeared on a panel at a crime conference sponsored by John Jay College of Criminal Justice. We spoke about how the Internet has changed crime reporting and the challenges of getting information online quickly and accurately.

With his Web site, Cisar is bypassing the restraints of the traditional media - which sorts through piles of news releases from police and chooses only a few thought to be the most newsworthy - to put all the surveillance photos into the public domain.

The site has 10 pages of wanted pictures and almost as many photos of those who have been captured. Cisar said he knows of four suspected bank robbers who have been captured because members of the public saw the pictures online.

The site has also helped fellow investigators cut through their own bureaucracy: In January, a man wearing a yellow construction helmet robbed Provident Bank on O'Donnell Street in Southeast Baltimore. The investigator immediately remembered seeing the same man in a picture on the gallery from a robbery in 2007 at another Provident Bank in Anne Arundel County, wearing the same yellow helmet.

Cisar, of course, wants to find bank robbers, and he puts up just enough information to help his cause - photos, a very brief description of the crime and numbers to call when a suspect is spotted. That is all perfectly fine. But the pictures are static - users can only plow through the gallery looking at images as they are put up.

What I'd like to see is a site that allows people to use the information any way they want. The sex offender registry wouldn't be as popular if all you could do is scan thousands of pictures and not be able to search by address and find all the offenders living on your street.

There should be the same kind of thing for banks, complete with a map, to help residents identify trends and make decisions about where to do business. But the banking industry helps fund Cisar's Web site. The banks want robbers caught, but I wonder whether they want to help pay for a map that shows robberies and lets customers see which branches get held up most.

And that's where law enforcement and the news media clash when we talk about sharing crime information, such as The Baltimore Sun's attempts to get crime logs online. We each want to present the data in our own way, and many departments are reluctant to give up control of the numbers for someone else to manipulate.

I hope that the next generation of bankbandits .org will have more options to make it an attractive site for users and a useful tool for law enforcement.

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