Law enforcement agencies are using mapping technology in more innovative ways to manage large-scale crime scenes in the pursuit of justice.
In 2018, when the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) received a new lead in the 20-year old case of missing mother, Traci Pittman Kegley, investigators decided to conduct a large-scale coordinated search of a 300-acre property near where the victim had last been seen.
Despite the size of the property and the time that had lapsed since the young woman’s disappearance, the law enforcement objective of the search was to canvass the area, looking for any physical evidence – a key step in the continued effort to bring closure to the cold-case.
Planning the search
Investigators spent months planning to conduct a gridded search across the large property and potential crime scene – a far cry from their typical search operations which involved looking for wandering Alzheimer’s patients or lost children.
The investigating team had to work through multiple challenges in this phase, not the least of which was access to the site.
The property in question was in a remote forested area of rural Alabama, accessible only by dirt roads with a tall fence ringing its boundaries. It was not an easy location to get equipment into.
Additionally, investigators sought to assemble more than 200 searchers to painstakingly canvass every part of the property. They also planned to bring in specialised capabilities including cadaver dogs and handler teams trained in locating and recovering human remains.
The operational complexity of the search called for an unprecedented level of real-time, location-based data and Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to coordinate the efforts of personnel from than 20 agencies.
As the scope of the search grew, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency requested support from Alabama’s Fusion Centre. This organisation provides resources, expertise and information sharing capabilities between local law enforcement and multiple federal agencies. Its objective is to maximise the ability to detect, prevent, apprehend, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity.
The GIS team at the Alabama Fusion Centre had been compiling aerial and satellite imagery of the property since the victim’s disappearance in 1998 up until 2018 to show any changes over time. But as the big search loomed, they flew a drone over the property to capture current, near real-time images.
An application called Drone2Map for ArcGIS was then used to facilitate the production of high resolution images which identified any known structures such as dirt roads, paths, streams and ponds on the property.
Meanwhile, multiple teams digitised search grids to manage the process of scouring every acre. Investigators were able to present their data in a variety of GIS web mapping applications on computers, tablets and phones. This gave everyone involved in the search a shared situational awareness and a way of visualising what they were walking into.
Executing the search
As the first teams arrived on the Sunday of the week-long search, a full-scale command centre was set up at a nearby Volunteer Fire Department facility. Large screen televisions, Wi-Fi and a dashboard using Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS were installed.
This provided a one-glance view of items of interest and the tracks of the searchers, instantly updating anyone on the status of the search.
A drone was once again flown over the entire property to generate an up-to-date map of the site to guide search efforts.
As searchers checked in, they each received a smartphone loaded with apps to facilitate to the search. Each phone was equipped with Workforce for ArcGIS for tracking the location of each searcher, Survey123 for ArcGIS for quick and intuitive reporting of items of interest, and Explorer for ArcGIS for viewing the items of interest.
And whether it was a dog handler, law enforcement officer, firefighter or volunteer searcher, everyone could see that they were on the map. The gridded map helped each team track progress and pick up where they left off after taking breaks.
According to those on the scene, the GIS tools enabled everyone involved to maintain clarity about the purpose of the search. While investigators had planned to be there for a full week, they were able to search the entire property thoroughly in just four days. In that time, more than 2,600 linear kilometres were searched, including 51 drone flight kilometres capturing more than 2,200 photographs, all in real-time.
A step closer to justice
The criminal investigation progresses and Alabama law enforcement continue to pursue leads. While the tragic case of Traci Pittman Kegley remains open, investigators are a step closer to justice.
The search demonstrated how real-time mapping applications could be used to coordinate large-scale searches over suspected crime scenes. The ALEA is also now applying the coordinated use of GIS for security at schools and large public events such as official inaugurations.
About the author
Global Industry Manager,