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KMWorld, March 2002, Vol 11, Issue 3

KM ‘aids and abets’ law enforcement

By Judith Lamont

Law enforcement is an information-intensive process, beginning with data collection at crime scenes and extending through records management and analysis of data to support crime-solving. Like other organizations, law enforcement agencies have been seeking ways to use software products to support their activities. Whether a law enforcement agency operates at the local, state or federal level, the need to integrate information from multiple data sources and the need to analyze it to produce actionable information are at the forefront.

CoplinkConnect from Knowledge Computing allows police departments to integrate data from different databases within their department as well as from other jurisdictions. Another product, CoplinkDetect, uses artificial intelligence to establish links among different elements in criminal databases. The technology used in those products was developed at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson (ai.bpa.arizona.edu) under a $1.2 million contract from the National Institute for Justice (NIJ), part of the Department of Justice DOJ. The Lab worked closely with the police department in Tucson to develop the products.

Douglas Smith, who served for five years as chief of police in Tucson, joined Knowledge Computing last year to help bring the newly developed technology to community law enforcement agencies. Tucson and Phoenix are both using Coplink products, and the surrounding suburban agencies are also beginning to take a regional view of data sharing. Criminals are mobile, and likely to commit crimes outside their immediate communities. Being able to share data regionally helps locate criminals who have crossed jurisdictional boundaries.

Smith puts a new spin on the 80-20 rule: “Eighty percent of crimes are committed by 20% of the criminal community,” Smith says. Therefore, being able to link certain individuals to a co-occurence with a vehicle, other individual or identifying physical characteristics can be very helpful.

“Last week we had a case in which a 7-year-old child was killed and the driver of the car ran, leaving his girlfriend behind,” says Smith. “She refused to name the driver, but by using CoplinkConnect we were immediately able to find out her other offenses and connect her to an individual who turned out to be the driver.”

Coplink products are set up on a middleware server, with a physical data repository. “Some other data integration systems work by accessing the databases on the fly,” says Smith. “But if one of these is down, then the data becomes unavailable.” The database is refreshed at a specified frequency, which can be as often as every few minutes. The software itself is free; Coplink charges for set up and maintenance. User studies have shown a 65% savings in time resulting from CoplinkConnect.

Knowledge Computing is one of the few law enforcement software companies that explicitly positions its products in the knowledge management space. The company defines knowledge management in its domain as “a systemized approach to collecting, processing and organizing law enforcement-specific knowledge to support the functions and decisions made by the agency members.”

Linking crime data

CrimeSoft Plus from CrimeSoft provides linkages among data elements to highlight key information for law enforcement officers. The software was developed as a custom product for a sheriff’s department in the Kansas City, MO, area, and after becoming popular with several other police departments in the region, was commercialized.

Bernie Diable, CEO of CrimeSoft, was one of the original programmers and is also a former detective. “We tried to cover the bases for most police departments,” says Diable, “from dispatching to chain of custody for property seized.”

CrimeSoft records begin with a crime/incident reporting section, and all other reports and supplements are linked to that main report. Individuals listed in the main report are automatically entered into a master name file, which contains more than 90 data fields. Linked to numerous other CrimeSoft files, the master name file serves as the hub for alerts. When a police officer runs a license plate number, for example, buttons on one side of the interface provide alerts if any mention of weapons is connected to the individual or any warrants are outstanding. A “find” feature can conduct a free-text search in the narrative section and also in each data field. The product is said to be easy to use, with most officers up and running on it in less than an hour. It is priced to be affordable for small to midsize departments, but is scalable to handle data for large metropolitan departments.

Jeff Straub, chief of police in Taylor, TX, likes the ability of CrimeSoft to build a photo lineup. An officer can put in criteria such as “a white male, over six feet tall, driving a red car,” and in a matter of seconds, CrimeSoft creates from its database a set of pictures of suspects who meet those criteria. The witness can look at a printout and see if any match the person seen in an incident.

Some of the most critical information in crime scenes must be documented in diagrams rather than text. The Crime Zone software package from The CAD Zone allows police officers to enter dimensions of rooms, place images of common objects and perform other data entry operations that recreate a crime scene.

“We are told almost every day that officers did not have to go to court after the defendant saw how detailed the description was,” says Janice White, co-founder of The CAD Zone. “They plead guilty.” A precise description can, for example, prove that the trajectory of a bullet contradicted a defendant’s claim about how an incident occurred. The Crime Zone can be integrated with large-scale records management systems so that users do not have to exit from the primary application to draw the crime scene. Sometimes investigating officers draw hand sketches at the scene, and then transfer them to The Crime Zone, while other times they bring a laptop to the scene. The product’s ease of use is an asset to police officers, who have little time for training on software products. The CAD Zone is planning options that allow officers to enter data into Windows CE handheld computers, although that software will not have the full functionality of the computer product. The company also provides other drawing products such as The Crash Zone, which documents vehicle accidents.

Miami vice

As supervisor of the Intelligence Analyst Unit for the Miami Police Department in the 1990s, Scott Nugent oversaw a progression from typed reports and index cards to a Burroughs B38 that supported the first local computer network in the department. When the time came to migrate to Windows, he converted 10,000 documents to Microsoft Word and looked for an indexing tool that would help locate relevant reports for the Special Investigation Section, which dealt primarily with narcotics and organized crime. After a referral from a sheriff during a homicide case, he settled on ISYS from Odyssey Development.

“Police officers spend a lot of time documenting what they have done,” says Nugent, “which takes away from research and crime-solving.” He opted for an unstructured text system over a database because it allowed the department to use existing criminal reports without having to re-enter data into fields.

“Document repositories and databases each have value,” Nugent observes, “depending on the activity. Our type of investigational research lent itself better to documents.” The document-oriented approach also allowed easy incorporation and retrieval of outside reports.

Nugent cites a broader issue that has parallels in commercial enterprises: a gap between content experts and IT staff who deliver computer systems.

“Sometimes the computer experts want to provide certain features just because it can be done,” he says “which can make things cumbersome for users.” He also describes a problem that plagues virtually every law enforcement agency regardless of level--the long lead time required for budget approval. The time lapse virtually ensures that agencies will be hard pressed both to incorporate the latest and best technology into their work, and to respond in a timely fashion to changing circumstances.

The Regional Information Sharing Systems RISS program of the Institute for Intergovernmental Research is another initiative designed to support government cooperation in crime fighting. It consists of six regional centers that include more than 6,000 law enforcement agencies at the municipal, county, state and federal level. Among the capabilities provided by RISS are databases, analytical skills and communications networks. A secure collaboration environment in which leads can be posted is also available.

“We have been able to get immediate access to information and have various agencies be in touch with one another regarding criminal elements they are looking for,” says Gerard Lynch, executive director of the Middle Atlantic-Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network, one of the six regional centers.

Many statewide databases are being connected to RISS to allow more users to have access; it is one of the few federal databases to which local jurisdictions can have access. The regional centers conduct analyses for member agencies that assist them in looking at crime patterns. RISS uses several commercial online analytical processing (OLAP) tools to aid them in detecting those patterns. However, according to Lynch, the ability of RISS to provide a broadband communications backbone for collaboration has become as important as the data sharing itself.

In some situations such as drug interdiction at the U.S. border, collaboration among multiple agencies is critical. “We don’t share data as much as we share conclusions,” says Tony Coulson, executive assistant to the CIO of the Drug Enforcement Administration DEA. The El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC, usdoj.gov/dea/programs/epic.htm) supports interdiction efforts by disseminating intelligence on drug activities to other relevant agencies such as the U.S. Customs Service and INS.

Coulson points out that depending on the effort at hand, raw data is not necessarily that helpful to other agencies. “You may have mountains of data, but what does it mean? Interpreting the data and making decisions is the most important part of the process,” he maintains.

A database can be very useful when a particular piece of information is sought, such as a fingerprint match. For tasks that require interpretive work, however, more complex collaborative processes are required. The DEA uses OLAP tools to detect patterns in data, which are then studied. As in the private sector, the challenge is to determine a course of action based on the best available information.

Millions of fingerprints

At the federal level, data integration is also a priority. The U.S. Department of Justice is funding an effort to integrate the fingerprint identification databases of the Immigration and Naturalization Service INS, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation FBI. The plan dates back to 2000, when Congress initiated the integration project. However, in view of the terrorist attacks, the program now has a greater sense of urgency.

Large-scale integration efforts pose significant technical challenges. The FBI Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) contains more than 40 million sets of fingerprints. The INS Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) includes photographs, fingerprints and criminal history data for individuals apprehended by INS dating from the late 1990s. The integration is a long-term effort that is planned as a phased implementation, some of which has already taken place. Even that initial integration has had an impact in terms of apprehending individuals who would previously not have been identified as a threat. Future phases will add new capabilities, but the integration process is complex.


KMWorld March 2002


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