On the day of his arrest, Aaron Thomas had only one question for the U.S. marshals — "What took you so long?"
From 1997 to 2009, Thomas assaulted women across Maryland and three neighbouring states. He attacked with knives, handguns and, once, a broken bottle. One group of victims were teenagers, trick-or-treating on Halloween.
When Thomas, dubbed the East Coast Rapist, was finally arrested on March 4, 2011, it was an anonymous tip that led the Maryland police to him. A tip that had come from a new kind of wanted poster — one written with pixels, not ink.
"Wanted billboards helped solve this case. I recall the visceral reaction in our office — men and women — when we got the word that the authorities had made an arrest," says Ken Klein, executive vice-president of government relations with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA).
Wanted posters aren't new. The public has been warned about pirates, outlaws and bandits through flyers and posters for hundreds of years. But the days of dead-or-alive bounty hunting are long gone, and few people are willing to pay attention to a paper wanted poster in today's distracted world.
Enter the OAAA — and the FBI. A new program to display wanted posters on electronic billboards, bus shelter displays and even the screens in Times Square has helped to bring the wanted poster into the digital age.
The billboard program began in Philadelphia at the FBI's Citizens Academy, a program that brings together business and community leaders and members of the media to learn about the FBI's work.
It was there that Barbara Bridge, an executive with Clear Channel Outdoor — one of the world's largest outdoor advertising companies — met and formed a relationship with two FBI community outreach specialists at the academy.
In 2007, as Clear Channel was preparing to convert eight billboards from vinyl to digital in Philadelphia, Bridge reached out to the agency to see if the FBI could make use of the new technology.
"We decided to try out a wanted program in the Philadelphia market. It was so successful in the first few months, we decided to propose it on a national scale," she says. "I believe we have captured 53 of the worst criminals in the U.S., giving closure to the families of victims and helping to ensure the safety of our citizens."
The process is simple: the FBI decides on its most-wanted criminals and provides names and photos to OAAA or one of its member companies. From there, the advertiser places the wanted bulletin into its rotation of digital ads that play across the area — most visibly on the big-screen digital billboards.
Ultimately, the goal is to encourage the public to be on the lookout for the most-wanted criminals — and to encourage anyone with information to come forward.
"Tipsters have said they did not act the first or second time they noticed a plea for information," says Klein. "But by the 30th or 50th time they saw that photo of a person who caused harm, suffering or loss of life, they were motivated to act."
The FBI now has access to 6,000 screens across 46 states, giving them an unprecedented ability to publicize the faces of their most wanted-criminals. Reaching out to the public on such a wide scale has yielded results — dozens of high-profile cases have been solved as a direct result of tips spurred on by a digital wanted bulletin.
"We are definitely saying to the public that we can't do this without you," says Shanna Daniels, Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI's Office of Public Affairs. "These wanted posters call people to action. It gives them the opportunity to feel like they are assisting the FBI with a greater mission."
Digital wanted bulletins are only one element of the FBI's strategy to encourage the public to support their investigations. Daniels cites Facebook and Twitter as other cornerstones of the FBI's public outreach strategy.
"We greatly understand the importance of reaching out and messaging the public," says Daniels. "What the public does for us — it's immeasurable."