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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

Tools of the Trade

Gang-tracking software does just what it implies: it pro­vides a system for cataloging records on individual gang members composed of anywhere from one to 100 or more pieces of data, called fields.

Each field is composed of infor­mation such as name, date of birth, age, sex, race, height, weight, hair, eyes, moniker, scars, marks, tattoos, oddities and group/gang name. Far more specific information, such as known associates, areas of the city frequented, residences, vehicles, weapons history, arrest history, gang affiliations and law enforcement contacts, are also accessible.

Each record is an in-depth profile that provides gang investigators with solid information through which they can track gang members and gang activity in their jurisdiction. In addition, photographs of gang members, tattoos and graffiti links to individual files can be pulled from the database and printed out as needed.

All of the information within the database is searchable, meaning that an officer can enter basic facts and have the system return possible matches. Ken Williams, a Texas police officer, explains: "We can do a full-text search of the entire database. You can search for a male with a tattoo of a heart by just typing 'male tattoo heart' or 'male heart.' If there is anything there, regardless of where the information is in the database, you can find it in a matter of seconds."

This ability to work with minimal information often seems to generate leads out of thin air. In Los Angeles in 1993, a gang-related shooting victim was able to give police only a vague description of his attacker. The sole specific feature he remembered was the shooter's "lazy eye." Inputting this fact into the department's General Reporting, Evaluation and Tracking system (GREAT), officers brought up a match that led to an arrest.

For investigators, gang-tracking soft­ware provides the scorecard through which they can come to know the players in the area. With a profile in hand, crimes that would go unsolved for lack of leads may become viable cases, simply because information begins to fit. A witness reports seeing a vehicle leave the area of a drive-by shooting, but all he can give officers is a partial license plate number.

Investigators search the gang database, asking the system to return the names of any gang members who own or have been seen in a vehicle whose license plate number contains the numbers the witness reported. Suddenly, the field is narrowed down, and investigators have something concrete to work with.

"Software like this makes finding information very easy," says Williams. His department has provided laptop com­puters to all its patrol officers, proving that what works for field investigators also works for the patrol division.

"We decided to add the Gang Activity Tracking System (GATS) from Public Safety Solutions Inc. to each laptop. So every patrol officer has immediate access to the gang intelligence database," says Williams. "Any additions or changes are forwarded to the gang unit, where the master database is updated. All laptops are upgraded at least once each month with the latest gang database files. Our system also provides the ability to link photographs with the intelligence file."

For the officer on the street, this means the chances of identifying suspects and obtaining positive leads to solve a case are improved, as well as reducing the time required to make the ID. The intelligence is right there on the patrol unit's laptop, literally at an officer's fingertips.

Alan H. Peterson of USCCCN International Inc., a law enforcement software developer, says "the idea and the reality of empowering the police officer to identify a gang member or related offenders through visual associations, such as graffiti, tattoos and vehicles, is remarkable and much-needed as the numbers of gangs rise and gang crime and violence escalates."

From the largest department maintaining a full-time gang unit, to a small agency with a part-time gang officer, there is software available to do the job. Dana Systems Corporation of Arcata, Calif., even produces a shareware program called GANGFILE, which is available over com­puter networks like CompuServe.

Peterson, whose company created the GO/TRAK SHOCAP PC street gang and criminal offender intelligence software program, says "we have released an abbreviated version of our program at the request of many officers who are currently serving as one- or two-man gang units, using their personal PCs and laptops for agency use. These offi­cers sought a more affordable, 'no-­frills' version, leading us to create GO/TRAK Lite. This way they can at least start to compile data, upgrad­ing to the full version with graphics, photo capture and more, at a later date, if needed."

Most programs available on the market can be tailored to meet the needs of a department, providing the flexibility to add or delete offender categories, link records to probation or parole files and flag violent crimi­nals. The programs can stand alone on one PC or be networked through­out a department or region, as with the GREAT system. Input to GREAT files comes from all departments linked to the central-area node or main computer, and updates are reg­ularly transferred to local systems.

Officers at one agency have the ben­efit of input from all local agencies connected to GREAT, improving information exchange. Additionally, each entry is audited to show where the input originated from and who else has inquired about an entry.

"One of the wonderful things about using GREAT is being able to see who else has made inquiries about the same person, usually officers in other departments," says Los Angeles Probation Ofc. Madeleine Kopp.

"We can see those queries listed and contact those officers for more details. I found many probation violations this way by doing regular queries on each person on my caseload," Kopp adds. "For example, a guy may have conditions against associating with gang members. I would see a query and contact that officer, finding out that my guy was with a group of gang members at midnight on the beach, and one of them had a gun or something. That would be a technical violation and possibly also a curfew violation.

"They also had conditions not to associate with particu­lar people or go into particular areas, and these queries saved me from having to check Fls at various depart­ments," says Kopp. "As more users come online to the GREAT system from outside the county and state, the fact that our probationers are being encountered in those jurisdictions will be vital to showing the court evidence that the person is bla­tantly violating the terms and condi­tions of probation."

Getting the goods

The formation of street gangs is not a recent phenomenon, but the tools law enforcement uses to fight back against them is. Technology has taken us from battered note­books and stacks of Polaroids, to sleek laptop computers and pho­tographs stored on disk. The change is both startling and satisfying.

Successfully prosecuting gang members is a difficult job and one that is accomplished only through the systematic legal documentation of their criminal behavior. Comput­er database and tracking systems like GO/TRAK and GREAT give departments a powerful tool to use, allowing patrol officers and investi­gators alike near-instant access to intelligence vital to officer safety and case management.

Gang unit officers facing the dual explosion of gang growth and the growth of technology are dis­covering that using one to fight the other is the modern answer. And gang members like Loco are learn­ing that you can run, but you can never hide.

Laura E. Quarantiello is the author of "On Guard' How You Can Win the War Against the Bad Guys" (LimeLight Books) and a frequent writer on law enforcement topics.

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