Meet the crime specialists keeping you safe through collaboration

single-meta-cal April 1, 2021

What do hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray have in common? As it turns out, a shared philosophy.

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

an investigator sitting at his desk looking at a computer screen working on crime stats

Investigator Joe Scarborough works on crime statistics for the Huntsville Police Department.

Gretzky’s words have stayed with Chief McMurray for years. In fact, it’s his mindset when making decisions on how to fight crime.

“Our officers and investigators respond to crime,” he said. “However, it’s my job as chief to determine how and where crime might move or change in our City and work with the command staff to find ways to help stop it from happening.”

As a member of HPD for nearly 35 years, McMurray previously served as the West Precinct commander before becoming the City’s top law enforcement official. He noticed inefficiencies in the department’s investigative process because investigators were assigned to precincts and worked their side of town: North, South or West. While officers may be assigned to precincts, public safety knows no boundaries.

Once he became chief in 2015, McMurray determined how to make the investigative process more efficient. He first reorganized how investigators were assigned to cases by creating nearly a dozen specialized units that only respond to a specific type of crimes, no matter where they occur.

Reorganizing criminal investigations

In May 2018, the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) opened in a repurposed building on Holmes Avenue.  Under the Supervision of Senior Captain Mike Izzo, for the first time in the department’s history, nearly all police investigators worked out of a centralized location where they can collaborate and spot emerging trends and patterns. Crime scene investigators were at police headquarters, while domestic violence and special victims units worked out of the National Children’s Advocacy Center.

The partnerships we have developed with these other agencies and the support of our community made this operation successful. We will continue to do more operations like this one to help move crime out of neighborhoods.

Now CID commander Capt. Dewayne McCarver, oversees about 60 investigators and the number is growing. Their vision? To follow every lead and solve every case bringing justice to crime victims.

Year after year, CID solves 20-40% more cases than the national average. McCarver says they want the community to understand crime is not welcome in Huntsville.

“Violent crime in Huntsville almost exclusively happens between people who know each other,” McCarver said. “If those who want to commit crime believe there is a significant chance they will get caught, then my hope is they will be less likely to commit the crime or move away from our City.”

Deploying technology to fight crime

In spring 2019, HPD activated its state-of-the-art North Alabama Multi-Agency Crime Center (NAMACC). It now has seven people assigned to it, all with a mission of helping investigators solve cases through collaboration.

Prior to the center opening, HPD had to wait for a federal lab to recover information from a cellphone, hard drive or any other device.

“The technology needed for crime centers was only affordable at the federal level up until a few years ago,” said Mike Eichhorn, NAMACC Cyber Intelligence Investigator. “Because of that, it meant we could sometimes wait at least three months to receive forensic information from devices.”

In 2020, the NAMACC was awarded about $200,000 in grants, which helped secure additional resources to support the center.

Technology, however, is only as good as the people using it. Until the NAMACC opened, investigators had access to one analyst who spent most of his time working on crime statistics and trends for each quarter and the department’s annual report.

the exterior of the criminal investigations division that shows two cars and empty parking spaces

The Criminal Investigations Division on Holmes Avenue.

Now, the center not only assists HPD’s CID team, but it also brings local, state and federal agencies under one roof. With increased collaborations, CID has become more technologically advanced, adopting some of the most sophisticated crime-solving software and programs. This new technology is opening up “cold cases” which were previously unsolvable, but they are now being revisited with at least two being prosecuted and another one scheduled to be presented this year to the district attorney’s office.

One benefit of the state-of-the-art technology is license plate readers, which are placed strategically around the City. The readers notify analysts when a car believed to be connected with a crime is spotted.

Recently, one of these readers helped solve a case that was nearly cold. Eichhorn received a call that a vehicle of interest in a child custody interference case had been spotted. New Hampshire State Police had been seeking two adults and two children who had been missing for two years.

“That hit led investigators and the U.S. Marshals to a farm in Tennessee, where all four people were recovered,” Eichhorn said. “The children were returned to their guardian, but without the license plate readers detecting the vehicle driving through our area, those children might still be missing today.”

Expanding partnerships

HPD is leading the way on technology initiatives, and it is providing other local agencies opportunities to access them. Partnerships with the FBI and Secret Service have resulted in officers being trained on the new technologies.

“In 2015, we had three task force officers assigned to federal partnerships,” McMurray explained. “Today, we have 26. These partnerships are crucial to help us learn new investigative techniques and, when needed, bring federal charges with advanced sentencing for some who are committing very serious crimes or are a danger to our community. Working so closely with federal law enforcement partners can lead to faster justice and enhanced sentencing outside of Alabama prison systems.

Recently, the NAMACC led a 16-day, multi-agency operation with multiple local, state and federal agencies, including the FBI, Secret Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Operation Lucky” focused law enforcement resources in a neighborhood in Huntsville that received numerous complaints from neighbors about illegal activity. The NAMACC analyzed crime data for the area and worked with other agencies to get drugs and illegal weapons off the streets. The operation ultimately led to 30 arrests.

“The partnerships we have developed with these other agencies and the support of our community made this operation successful,” McMurray said. “We will continue to do more operations like this one to help move crime out of neighborhoods.”

Looking towards where the puck is headed, McMurray believes a new building will be built within the next five years to house both CID, NAMACC and an enhanced crime scene lab. With Huntsville’s growth, he sees it as a crucial aspect of staying ahead of crime.