Fayette sheriff's unit uses technology, social media to track fugitives

Fayette Deputies add new technology, social media as search resources

tpettit@herald-leader.comDecember 13, 2012 

Deputy Antonie Palmer, approached the front door of the address — one of the many on the list of warrants he had received that morning from the Fayette County Sheriff's Department. Sgt. Don Hernton walked around back, taking careful note of a "Beware of Dog" sign.

The man listed isn't home, but Hernton said he knows he will be back later.

"Sometimes you pull up and you know the person lives there and you know the other people are lying," Hernton said. "We'll be back later to catch him."

The process of catching fugitives, or those wanted by the law, is a process that starts the same way: a warrant is issued explaining the description of the wanted person, the charges they face and an address. Visiting the address is the next step.

As Palmer pulls up outside a listed address, he always runs the license plates of the cars in the driveway.

"It might belong to our guy, it might be someone else with a warrant, you never know," Palmer said.

Having an arrest on that day is a best-case scenario, said Jay Pittman, sergeant of the Special Operations Fugitive and Extradition Division. But if the address turns up empty, deputies ask neighbors, landlords and relatives for tips on where they can find the fugitive.

Deputies use whatever resources are available to them, from Facebook status updates to friends and family.

"We really rely on the public to let us know where these people are," said Sheriff Kathy Witt. "More times than not, I find that family members are the most helpful."

The Office of the Fayette County Sheriff pursues fugitives in Fayette County, working closely sometimes with the U.S. Marshals Service, Lexington police, state police, FBI agents and the state probation and parole office.

When the sheriff's deputies get warrants, they visit previous employers, make calls to people listed as emergency contacts and visit places where a wanted person has been arrested in the past.

Some of the people sought might be unaware of their wanted status, but most of them are avoiding the law, Pittman said.

Deputies are armed, as they are every day, and prepare themselves with body armor to protect against possible stab wounds. They also carry pepper spray and batons.

"We have to assume that person is armed and approach in a tactical and friendly way," said Deputy Bernard Palmer.

Having a relationship with the wanted person can also help.

"We often have an idea about this person and how they are going to react," Bernard Palmer said. "Half the battle is how you treat people; you need to treat them with respect."

Deputies also turn to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to find fugitives.

Pittman said it is common for people to post where they are staying or say what they are doing.

"When they let their guard down, it gets us a little closer," Pittman said.

Technology also can assist in "proving" an identity. Pittman said he uses his smartphone on the street to pull up previous mug shots to match a face with a name on a warrant.

And because of today's technology, it is more common than it has ever been to find someone wanted in another state.

"You can just be sitting in traffic and running plates, and there someone is, wanted 10 states away," said Deputy Bernard Palmer.

Because of the National Crime Information Center, fingerprints and warrants can be found anywhere in the county.

Out-of-state fugitives can be tried in the found state for any other crimes they have been arrested for.

Eventually, they will come back to Kentucky to stand trial.

"They might have to serve time in another state first, we might need to get a governor's warrant to get them here, but we have to go get them," said Witt.

Last week, Deputy Bernard Palmer and his son, Deputy Antonie Palmer, went to Miami to pick up a sex offender wanted in Kentucky.

"We try to make it seamless," Witt said, but she admits it can be challenging.

The Palmers missed their flight because the prisoner wasn't ready to leave.

"We ended up securing the prisoner in the airport while we waited for our next flight," Bernard Palmer said.

On every flight with a prisoner, Transportation Security Administration is informed, along with the pilots and any air marshals.

Depending on how violent the offender is, flying might not be an option. In those situations, deputies will drive.

At the end of the day, the deputies evaluate each case to determine the best approach.

Knowing the right approach is critical to the work the unit does. The tools — including the new technology — help, but nothing can replace knowledge and experience, Witt said.

"Technology has given us a few more tools to do this job with," she said. "I don't think anything will replace good law enforcement skills."

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