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Gang Tracking: War on Gangs Goes Hi-Tech

Computers are aiding law enforcement by keeping gang members from becoming faces in the crowd.

December 01, 1996  |  by Laura E. Quarantiello

Loco wears his scar almost like a first-place ribbon. The curved line of flesh that arcs around his left, eye like a backward "c" has been his badge of honor for years, the mark of a gangster who has made it, who is not afraid to put himself in harm's way for the glory of the hood or the repu­tation of his gang.

Ask him, and he will tell you all about the knife fight that almost cost him his eye; the fight where he left his opponent, a rival gang member, bleeding to death behind an alley trash can. Ask him, and he'll tell you that the police have been looking for whoever did that one, but haven't been able to identify him yet. Ask him, and he'll laugh, saying that there are a lot of gang-bangers with scars out there; they'll never get him because he's just another face in the crowd.

In another time, another era, Loco may have been right. He would have laid low for a while, melting into the wood­work until the heat cooled and he, once again, became just another gang member in a city full of them. His name, physical features, gang affiliation and related information in a police officer's notebook would eventually be transferred to a file folder.

And as long as Loco stayed out of the spot­light of police interest, he probably would never be con­nected with the witness reports that said the killer was a gangster with a scar on his face. But this is the '90s, when the power of a computer program can take a little thing like Loco's scar and turn it into his downfall.

File it under "G"

Intelligence, a curious alchemy of information and intuition, is at the root of almost everything that a police offi­cer does. Every contact he initiates, every arrest he makes is based on some form of intelligence-knowing what's true or possible. And intelligence comes from details, those slippery little shreds of information that are part and parcel of a working cop's day. "It's all about what you know," says a Los Angeles police officer.

Originally, all intelligence was paper-based. An officer or investigator made notes in a notebook, filled out field inter­view cards, took photographs and typed up reports, all of which ended up filed away somewhere. If you wanted to access any of that information, you went to the files, that great morgue of file cabinets that became the main repository of most law enforcement intelligence. Hand-­searching was slow and time-consum­ing, taking an officer away from the street and tying him to a desk, but for the most part it was effective.

Police departments today still run chiefly on paper, and paper-based records remain an important tool for law enforcement officers. Filed, sort­ed and cross-referenced, they are available to be searched and studied is by any officer with the time to do so.

But in the business of law enforcement, time is often a precious resource. The faster you produce the needed information, the quicker you can make an arrest. And with both the crime itself and the number of criminals on the loose growing daily, some little detail, some vital nugget of knowledge that may provide a connection is bound to be lost or simply overlooked. It would take an army of ana­lysts years to catalog and cross-reference details found in reports by hand.

Fortunately, technology has stepped in to do what mortals cannot, and the result is revolutionizing the way cops track crim­inals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in gang investigations.

Putting two and two together

If police departments run on intelli­gence, then gang units run on tiny details, those basic facts from which intelligence is ultimately derived. For a gang unit officer, much like any other police inves­tigator, finding out who did what to whom involves threading together disconnected pieces of information to form a coherent and plausible lead.

The pieces may be as diverse as a patrol officer's report of gang activity, a street-crime unit's field interview cards and a detective's interrogation report, all of which may contain bits of intelligence, mere mentions of facts on gang crime that could be of value to a current or future investigation.

The patrol officer's report, for example, will eventually make it to the gang unit office, but will the right investigator see it, and will he see it in time to make use of it? And if he sees it, will he be able to record it in his memory, sort it, remember it, connect it and call it forth some days, weeks or months down the line when it could be valuable? It's a hit-or-­miss proposition and one that shouldn't be left solely to a fal­lible human mind.

Now, with the help of technology, putting together a lot of disconnected pieces isn't such a Herculean task. Supplement­ing and, in many cases, enhancing the cops' work are dedi­cated computer programs that take all those bits of information and make them searchable. For a law enforcement officer, it's like having the collective minds of the entire police depart­ment focused on one investigation.

Though computer databases are nothing new to law enforcement, their true worth to gang units are only now being realized. With the spread of gangs and the sheer growth in the number of gang members, accurate intelligence is vital to the working police officer. Unfortunately, no nationwide central database of gang information exists, a fact that forces individu­al departments to create and maintain their own records.

Computerized gang-tracking methods are as diverse as the sun and the moon. Some departments rely on very basic, commercially available databases, some use customized crime-analysis software and some invest in dedicated pro­grams written specifically for gang tracking. The level of gang activity and the current budget situation are usually deciding factors for departments choosing a system.

It is the dedicated gang-tracking programs, however, that have evolved into tools that give investigators the most bang for their buck, providing interactive searchable indexes that place the power to solve crimes directly in officer's hands.

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