Get a clue from the cops

Along with the cap and baton, the little police notebook is one of the more familiar law enforcement accessories, but, in the Web 2.0 age, paper and pencil is often not enough to fight crime. Law enforcement agencies are using more and more technological tools to help them catch the bad guys. But, like any less-than-tech-savvy workforce switching to new high-falutin’ software, there have been bumps along the way. Read on to learn crib the lessons learned by the crimefighters.


Lieutenant Chuck Cohen leads up the criminal intelligence and special investigation unit for the Indiana State Police and speaks across the United States to front-line law enforcement officers about the importance of using technology in their jobs, Increasingly, he says, parts of cases will be online or Internet-based in some way. “A lot of evidence is stored in electronic media,” he points out. This can be anything from clues on MySpace about where a body is buried (like in the widely-reported Taylor Behl case) to LiveJournal or Facebook entries being used to show a suspect’s true character, says Cohen.

The biggest challenge in getting officers more tech-savvy is changing their mindset about how technology figures into their investigations. “Police departments tend to invest in cybercrime units, so it gets compartmentalized, but, conceptually, cybercrime is a component to all crimes,” he says.

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Cohen has tried to better integrate the force by first providing a two-hour general awareness training to 1,300 troopers to acquaint them with the crimefighting capabilities of Internet staples like MySpace, Facebook, Second Life, and Craigslist.


From there, said Cohen, it’s important to have technology advocates sprinkled throughout the service to demonstrate the value of using technology to others. “For 75 years or so, the missing child protocol was the same: one person interviews around the house, and one searches for the child,” he said. “And, now, there’s a person who finds the computer and accesses it. It’s a concrete thing that can be helpful right up front and you don’t need a lab-based forensic examiner to get results right away.”

Officers who show an interest and aptitude can become digital media recovery specialists on the side, and show by example how tech can pay off at the crime scene, such as finding maps where a runaway could have gone or chat histories with child abuse offenders. Said Cohen: “The best way for police officers and detectives to come around is to prove that it works and gets results. (Showing them that will make them want to) have the ability on-site to do it, too.”


Getting valuable information quicker — and, more importantly, sharing it better — was also the impetus behind the Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS), the joint project of Microsoft, the Toronto Police, and the RCMP. It was born in 2005 when a Toronto police officer sent an impassioned plea to Bill Gates, calling for help to better track child abuse offender investigations.

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The project started with 16 Ontario agencies, according to Saanich, British Columbia’s Constable Arnold Guerin, who is on a five-year stint with the RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre in Ottawa. He acts as the technology manager and overseer of the CETS and witnessed the growing pains firsthand.

“There was the growth of the application, and troubleshooting the connections,” he said. “Plus, with Microsoft, the RCMP, and then the provincial and municipal agencies, there were different mandates. But we had to leave our badges at the door.” Over the next two years, another dozen were added, and today the number is up to 39 nationally with representation in each province. The program has also gone global, with another dozen countries adding CETS to their crimefighting repertoire.

“The purpose is to share information, regardless of what jurisdiction it’s in,” said Guerin. To do this, CETS employs Windows Server, SQL Server, and SharePoint Server, with the custom-built Web-based CETS application running on top through the heavily-secured national RCMP network. Three dedicated CIOs take care of the operation. It has already yielded results, such as the realization that two officers within the same department were working on the same case. Then there was the teamwork of two police departments that were able to pool their evidence to get a search warrant, and then arrest the offender in question — only due to the combined evidence of both teams.

The content of the child abuse investigations and the evidence of filmed child sexual abuse sometimes housed in CETS means that security is a top priority. Two-factor digital certification is used, along with a hardware-based token. Only officers who work on child abuse cases can get a CETS account, and they can only access it from a secure terminal, which usually means a computer in a special room. “That means no VPN from the hotel room!” said Guerin.

Microsoft crafted, and now helps maintain, the program as a public service (and free of charge), resulting in a rare level of user input — and user-friendliness. Before starting on CETS, Microsoft hosted about a hundred officers from around the world to help shape the database and its interface, and reduce any pesky problems they had within their own RMSs. Ongoing additions that have increased efficiency include better record-adding buttons and standardized drop-down menu options.


Efficiency was lagging down in Kentucky, too, said the Erlanger police department’s Public Safety Communications Center manager Steve Castor, so they turned to Information Builders’ WebFocus to improve data searchability and add mapping functionality. Before, when a report was put into the RMS, retrieving the full picture later was difficult — either some information was missing, or too much data was being spit back out. Now, said Castor, qualified responses prevent a “mess of data” from taking too much of an officer’s time.

The program — running with a SQL database — allows officers to search for crimes and then drill down to the report level for added detail, and for a list of the types of calls that came in during a specific time period. The database spans several jurisdictions, and every call can be plotted on a map. This is a big step from the olden days: crimes could take place quite close to one another, but they wouldn’t be connected because they took place in different jurisdictions. “Often the departments would be set apart by something as simple as a line down the middle of the road, and if a person commits a crime on one side of it, there’s a good chance it might happen nearby again — but it would be in another (jurisdiction),” said Castor.

The beta’s ease-of-use has received good reviews from officers and police administrators, all thanks to the familiar look-and-feel. “The most important thing is that it is Web-based,” said Castor. “We don’t want to overwhelm them too much, so it’s important to keep everything in one interface. We’re pushing out a new toolbar right to their mobile system that works within their current software. It takes little to no training when it looks like a regular Google search engine — they know what that (search) box represents.” When it comes to the police, Erlanger police chief Marc Fields said, “Technology is our greatest challenge, and the greatest threat to us if we don’t keep up, but we are making it work.”

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