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SOFTWARE HELPS POLICE DRAW CRIME LINKS
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
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
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
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."
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