March 4, 2014

The Gangs of Los Angeles

Part 4: The Homicide Library

Boxes of aMurder Booksa

Boxes containing “murder books”—binders filled with information on homicide investigations—are stacked at a Los Angeles Police Department facility. The FBI is helping to digitize these files for use in a fully searchable homicide library.

In a room at a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) facility, thick binders—most filled with more than a thousand pages of paper—are stacked in boxes on and under tables and piled from floor to ceiling. Each binder represents a murder victim.

Dubbed “murder books” by the LAPD, they hold the contents of individual homicide investigations, from witness statements and crime scene photos to autopsy reports. The FBI is helping to turn these paper-only books into a digital homicide library that will benefit investigators as well as the families of victims.

The project will take nearly 5,000 murder books going back to 1990 and digitize them for use in a system that will be fully searchable so that LAPD detectives—as well as FBI analysts and investigators—will be able to cross-reference and compare information in every case, something not currently possible.

“Not only will this help solve cases,” said LAPD Det. Cheryl Nalls, who is administering the project, “it will bring healing to the families of victims.”

Over the years, the LAPD developed a system where all paper material related to a homicide investigation is put into a binder. Each murder book has tabs where particular information is placed. That way, any detective inheriting a case understands how the paperwork is organized.

“The system works,” Nalls said, “but because it is paper only, the material in the binders is only useful to the investigator on that case. Potential leads involving other cases, victims, or subjects are locked inside the book.”

And when a homicide case is officially inactive for one year, it goes dormant and the murder book is placed into one of several retention files located at various locations within the LAPD’s 21 geographical areas. The result is that hundreds of unsolved cases could potentially end up filed away and forgotten.

“The homicide library will change all that,” said Robert Clark, an assistant special agent in charge in our Los Angeles Division who worked with LAPD Capt. Nancy Lauer to launch the digital library idea. “Being able to search and cross-reference 20 years of homicide data on solved and unsolved cases is something that has never existed.”

Murder books are shipped to the FBI’s Document Conversion Lab in Virginia, where each record in every book is scanned into a software system that allows for sophisticated searching and archiving. The Bureau will maintain the digital network.

“We are essentially digitizing the investigative process,” Clark said, which has intelligence value for the Bureau as well as the LAPD. Agents working other federal investigations or analysts looking for gang and murder trends, for example, will be able to use the system to add and extract information.

The LAPD has committed funds to create and maintain a physical space for the homicide library, where the murder books will be stored and made available to victims’ families. They will be able to visit the library to find out the status of loved ones’ cases, and perhaps offer new information that could help solve a case.

“We want to bring healing to families,” Nalls said.

About 1,000 books have been scanned and uploaded so far. Beta testing is underway, and Nalls says she hopes the system will be operational by the end of 2014. The homicide library project has been “a great innovation,” she said, “and a great partnership between the LAPD and the FBI.”

Next: The power of partnership.