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Author(s):    Gareth Cook, Globe Staff Date: July 17, 2003 Page: A1 Section: Metro/Region
The Boston Police Department is rolling out a powerful new computer program built to find hidden connections among people and events almost instantly, allowing detectives to investigate murders, rapes, and other crimes far faster than they can today.

Called "Coplink," the program sifts through tens of millions of police records, from 911 calls to homicide investigations, to deliver a short list of potential leads in just seconds. The same kind of searching currently takes hours or even days of a detective's time - when it is possible at all. Over the next few weeks the department will begin training detectives across the city on Coplink, becoming the largest police force, and the first in the Northeast, to use the software.

"Everyone who has gone through the training is just ecstatic," said Boston police Deputy Superintendent Bill Casey. "We are very excited about it."

Designed in an Arizona artificial intelligence lab, Coplink searches through arrest records, incident reports, and emergency phone calls to identify potential suspects and compile all possible leads on them, including past addresses, weapons they have owned, and even the arrest records of people with whom they have been stopped in a car. In Boston, it will search only through city police records, though it could later be expanded to stretch far more broadly.

The program is part of a nationwide push by law-enforcement agencies, from elite intelligence services to rural police departments, to use the power of modern computing to pull together far-flung pieces of information and put them in the hands of the investigator who needs them. It reflects a growing recognition in law enforcement that many significant clues may be overlooked because they are lost in a maze of isolated computer databases. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, FBI agents in different field offices had become concerned about suspicious people at flight training schools, but their computers gave them no way to see that the cases were part of a broader pattern.

"The problem is absolutely huge," said Sam McQuade, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "Cops are only as good as their data."

At a demonstration this week, a technician typed in a reporter's home address. In seconds, a record popped up of the reporter's car being hit by a fire truck. Then came the reporter's home phone number and wife's name. Then came the name of the truck's driver and the address of the firehouse where the truck is registered. With another click, the program could ask the computer to look for any links between the fire truck and another incident.

"It just tumbleweeds and tumbleweeds," said Kevin E. Griffiths, a member of the department's Information Systems Group, as the results flickered on the screen.

Coplink has already been installed in a handful of cities and counties, mostly in the West: Tucson and Phoenix; Redmond, Wash.; Huntsville, Texas; Polk County, Iowa; and Montgomery County, Va. Though the program is bound to alarm some privacy advocates with its relentless drive to find even the most subtle connections between people and events, officers point out that the software does nothing police don't already do, and it is still the police - not the machine - deciding what leads are worth following.

"Even with all the information you get, it is still the detective who solves the crime," said Detective Donald Brown of the Information Technology division. "The first thought that came to my mind when I saw Coplink was `I wish I had this thing in the 1980s.' "

In the '80s, Brown once worked on a task force investigating Jamaican organized crime, and he said he spent more than four months painstakingly combing through the department's files and writing down all the connections he could find on stacks of paper. "Doing that on paper is the source of migraines," Brown said.

Coplink is built on the knowledge that the majority of crimes are committed by people who already appear in police records, either for previous offenses or for connections to other incidents.

In Tucson, Coplink has helped track down rapists, murderers, and other violent criminals based on the slimmest of clues. In one case, a detective was able to identify a suspect in a child rape case using only a rough physical description of the suspect and his car, and the first few letters of his last name, said Tim Petersen of the Tucson Police Department. They tracked the suspect through his father, who shares the same last name and once reported a lost wallet. In another case, Petersen said, a criminal was nabbed on the basis of a tattoo, a previous association with the victim, and the nickname "Shorty."

The Coplink program, which was designed by Hsinchun Chen of the University of Arizona, began in Boston by compiling all the information from three large but unconnected computer databases: one used for 911 calls, one used to record information when a suspect is booked, and a third used to record any incident that merits a police report.

More sources of information, such as Boston's widely respected ballistics database, will be added later, according to Jim Fitzpatrick, who is director of the Information Systems Group and who has been overseeing Coplink's installation.

The software then automatically links items that have names or other facts in common, allowing detectives to pose very complex search challenges. In the Washington, D.C., sniper case, for example, Coplink was called in to help. The system wasn't operational until the day the suspects were caught. But when it was asked to find any person or car that was associated with events within an hour of any of the shootings, the suspects, and their blue Chevrolet Caprice, popped up immediately because they had been stopped by officers after more than one of the shootings, said Robert Griffin, president of the Knowledge Computing Corp., which sells Coplink.

Coplink is now being used to help compile records for the sniper prosecution, Griffin said.

Griffin sees Boston as a chance to win converts to his product, and so the company is charging the city only for its costs, which Griffin estimated at "less than $100,000." Normally, he said, the cost for a force the size of Boston's would be about $500,000, he said. Chen's research has been supported by the National Institute of Justice and the National Science Foundation, and Griffin's company pays the university a licensing fee to commercialize it.

Griffin said that he has been talking with the Cambridge Police Department, as well as a consortium of departments on the North Shore that are interested in Cop link. His hope is to make a regionwide web of Coplink users whose information would be shared to snare criminals.

"What we are finding is that criminals are like great white sharks," he said. "They feed when the feeding is good, then they move, but usually not very far."

Gareth Cook can be reached at

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