Kim Rossmo finds new uses for his crime-fighting methodology at Texas State
Sometimes big ideas hit like freight trains. Kim Rossmo’s arrived on the Bullet Train between Tokyo and Nagoya in 1991. At the time, the Canadian police officer and doctoral student in criminology had an idea of where he wanted to go with his dissertation, but he was searching for a way to get there.
“I looked out the window, and all of a sudden an idea popped into my head about what the algorithm should look like,” Rossmo recalls. As Mount Fuji flew by him at 120 miles per hour, inspiration struck: a mathematical algorithm that could be used to analyze the locations of serial crimes such as arson, rape or murder to map the most likely area in which the perpetrator lives.
As Rossmo jotted down the algorithm on a Japan Railways napkin, he knew he was closer to completing his doctorate. He didn’t know his idea would later help the FBI, ATF and Scotland Yard help solve thousands of crimes and put him on the fast track to success.
Finding Criminals The theory behind Rossmo's methodology is that criminals do most of their criminal acts close to home or in familiar territory. His method narrows an investigation, which can save time and money. “The goal is to help law enforcement, intelligence and military agencies focus their limited resources in areas that are most likely to contain what they’re looking for,” Rossmo says.
Since the 1990s, he has worked with law enforcement on more than 200 serial crime cases, representing about 3,000 crimes spanning the globe. This includes many high-profile cases, such as the Washington, D.C., sniper killings and one of the largest manhunts for a serial rapist in Great Britain’s history. His work was also the basis for the pilot episode of “Numb3rs,” a TV series.
During production of the movie Zodiac, the 2009 thriller about the still-unsolved string of murders committed by the “Zodiac Killer” in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s, Paramount Pictures hired Rossmo to apply his methodology using known crime scene locations.
“We talked to retired law enforcement officers and surviving victims, and looked at the scenes of the crimes,” he says. “It was quite fascinating because it was also a bit of a history exercise. I had to go to Berkeley University and dig through old map archives to get a sense of what the area looked like nearly 40 years ago.”
The resulting report, which Paramount provided to law enforcement, highlighted an area in Vallejo, Calif., near Mare Island Naval Shipyard as the Zodiac Killer’s most likely home base. “There were a number of things that supported the findings, which gave us confidence in the results,” Rossmo says. “We don’t know which suspects were from that area, but there’s a possibility there is someone who was never eliminated. And with DNA — they’re pretty sure they have the Zodiac’s DNA from the envelopes of the letters he wrote to police — the case is potentially solvable if he’s still alive.”
A New Direction Rossmo’s success has taken him from police work to academia and from Canada to Texas State by way of Washington, D.C. He has been a research professor in Texas State’s Department of Criminal Justice since 2003 and the university’s Endowed Chair in Criminology since 2009.
Rossmo also heads Texas State’s Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation (GII). In addition to assisting in criminal cases and training law enforcement on how to use his methodology in serial property crime investigations, Rossmo is exploring its versatility by applying it to projects ranging from border control to counterterrorism — projects for which he has secured more than $2 million in grants.
“Dr. Rossmo is the heart of the center,” says Bill Covington, PhD, associate vice president for research at Texas State. “He continually amazes me with the diversity of his interest and his ability to work on many different projects all at once.”
The Diverse Work of GII Among GII’s recent projects was one funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. Rossmo analyzed known locations where people illegally cross the U.S. border from Mexico. By identifying features common to these locations, Rossmo can predict other likely locations for similar activities. This would allow the Border Patrol to deploy manpower or otherwise focus their resources where they’re most likely to be needed to stop illegal workers, drug smugglers, foreign terrorists and fugitives from entering the country.
Another ongoing GII project involves analyzing the geospatial relationships between sites known to be used by terrorist cells, such as safe houses, weapon storage areas and pay phones. The theory is that terrorist operations, like serial criminals, produce patterns that can be used against them.
Still another project involves analyzing the locations where insurgent attacks take place in Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal is to determine the most likely locations of insurgents’ weapon warehouses, which act as bases, to help protect the safety of U.S. troops from the mortar, sniper and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks that are all too common in those countries.
Fighting bioterrorism is another area that Rossmo and GII are tackling. His work on projects in biology and epidemiology could ultimately provide a way to identify the source locations of disease outbreaks and release points of contagions by bioterrorists. This information could help prevent the spread of disease and deadly biohazards.
Future Applications “I always try to think, ‘Where can it be applied next?’ and ‘Where will this take us?’” Rossmo says of his methodology. “Some of the most interesting possibilities in law enforcement exist where different academic disciplines intersect. And this is really criminology, geography and mathematics, with maybe a little bit of forensic psychology. There is a lot of potential.”
GII will soon be working on a project for the Office of Naval Research for which it will combine Rossmo's method with predictive analysis in an attempt to determine the future locations of improvised explosive devices. The U.S. Marine Corps has also shown interest and support for continuing the GII’s project on insurgent attacks.
“There has been a tremendous amount of interest among members of Congress in the work that Dr. Rossmo is doing as it pertains to the military and border security issues,” says Christine Pellerin, a partner of The Normandy Group, a government relations firm in Washington, D.C., that represents Texas State University.
This interest could help secure additional grants and projects for GII, a result that benefits Texas State in more ways than one. “I hope it will be possible for Dr. Rossmo to continue to grow the center,” Covington says. “This implies that additional faculty and students will have increasing opportunities to work in the center and to be exposed to the interesting and high-quality research associated with a prominent researcher like Dr. Rossmo.”