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Power in the palm of your hand

Written by Mary Marshall

For law enforcement officers on the street, their newest weapon fits in the palm of their hands—a personal digital assistant (PDA) that allows them access to criminal information records including mug shots, driver’s license data, incident reports and other critical investigative data. For state and local law enforcement officers, the PDAs are invaluable in fighting street crime and capturing fugitives.

Police in Peoria, AZ, a suburb of Phoenix, were able to obtain a positive identification on suspects in a triple homicide using a PDA to run through photos at the scene of the crime. A detective at the scene commented, “The SMART phone was worth its weight in gold. It’s a tremendous tool.”

The information shared among law enforcement agencies via the PDAs is managed via AZLink, a program that was created by several Arizona law enforcement agencies to manage criminal justice information sharing among agencies within the state. AZLink is composed of four regions, each with an anchor law enforcement agency: AZLink South (Tucson Police Department is the lead agency); AZLink East (Mesa Police Department is the lead agency); AZLink Central (Phoenix Police Department is the lead agency); and AZLink North (Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the Arizona Counter Terrorism Intelligence Center are the lead agencies). Within those regions, agencies contribute information and access the system.

The AZLink program supports two applications on workstations, laptops, and PDAs—COPLINK and the Justice Web Interface (JWI). COPLINK is used for tactical lead generation and crime analysis. Officers and detectives are able to link information together and research data to get the information they need in the field. In an example in Tucson, officers had a partial name and a description of the suspect’s vehicle. Using COPLINK and cross referencing the information, officers in Tucson were able to identify a suspect in a shooting incident.

JWI is a program developed by Maricopa County that accesses databases across multiple agencies and retrieves information based on a single request. Information can be retrieved from ACIC, NCIC, wants / warrants, driver’s license information and photos, mug shots, stolen vehicle information, sex offender information, stolen guns, and much more. This data-mining effort gives participating agencies a wider search capability for suspected criminals.

The Need to Share Information
The need to connect the various law enforcement agencies—and their individual investigative information—is crucial in high-profile serial crime sprees. The metropolitan Phoenix area and surrounding municipalities, known collectively as “The Valley,” was terrorized by two such cases in 2005-2006. The “Baseline Killer” case and the “Serial Shooter” case. The Baseline Killer, named for his primary geographic hunting ground, committed nearly all of his crimes in Phoenix. However, the Serial Shooter cases crossed several jurisdictions within the valley. AZLink was not in place at the time. The case was solved with old-fashioned shoe-leather detective work and task force cooperation, but the ability to load investigative information into a system accessible by all valley jurisdictions may have brought about an earlier conclusion to this crime spree that left eight people dead and 17 injured.

“Information sharing is increasingly becoming more critical to the public safety mission,” said Mesa Police Chief George Gascon. “Effective crime fighting, as well as homeland security efforts, depend on our ability to communicate quickly and accurately. Consequently, we can’t afford to depend on informal systems to get the job done. The stakes are too high. It is for this reason that the East Valley Chiefs came together to form the East Valley Crime and Gang Information Fusion Center and why we have embarked in adding COPLINK to our arsenal.”

By the time Arizona hosted a series of Bowl games in early 2008—the Super Bowl, the Insight Bowl, and the Fiesta Bowl—AZLink was deployed, and officers at the game were outfitted with the PDAs. At one of the Bowl games, officers received information that service workers and several people from one of the television networks were at the venues, and none of the required background checks or vetting process had been done on these people. The camera crew members required immediate assistance as they needed to set up their media equipment on schedule. Because of the PDAs, law enforcement officers were able to perform background checks immediately.

At the Bowl games, the tasks for obtaining wants and warrant checks was made much easier because officers were able run people on the spot without having to rely on other uniformed officers or dispatch, which was already busy with event activities and traffic. While running background checks, officers discovered five people with warrants, and some of these warrants resulted in arrests.

The wireless PDA devices gave law enforcement immediate information, thus stopping these people from entering the venues or obtaining access to critical areas at the event locations. The success Arizona had with security at the Bowl events is being replicated at other high-profile events.

Bob Rampy, terrorism liaison officer / IT analyst for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), works with MCSO officers to deploy JWI. Rampy related a recent scenario facing the MCSO SWAT team. “A perpetrator had barricaded himself with several hostages,” Rampy said. “The police know his name, but that’s all. Think how crucial it would be for the SWAT team to have an actual photo before they tactically move in on the guy. It’s not too trite to say that in these kinds of cases, a picture is worth a 1,000 words.” Rampy worked with the SWAT team to provide them with that critical information in order to protect the lives of the hostages as well as the officers.

Applications for Border States
Because Arizona shares a porous border with Mexico, the federal government has recognized the benefits of working with state and local law enforcement agencies in Arizona to share information. This information-sharing effort includes participating with AZLink agencies. Federal agencies—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Transportation Security Admini-stration—are working with state and local agencies to test more than 350 PDAs along Arizona’s southern border and metropolitan areas.

In a recent drug-smuggling investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and state investigators were attempting to secure a quantity of narcotics from a drug smuggling organization (DSO) operating out of Tucson. At the beginning of the investigation, ICE agents had little information on the people relating to the DSO. Agents used COPLINK during surveillance to run license plate numbers, gain residence information and criminal information records associated with the vehicle’s owner and generate other investigative leads without “burning” the surveillance.

Later in the investigation, the agents observed another vehicle with another member of the DSO inside it. COPLINK checks of the vehicle showed a possible association of a person with that vehicle. The person associated with the vehicle, according to COPLINK, was a known drug smuggler and known to be armed. The agents were able to identify other associates arrested by the Counter Narcotics Alliance (CNA) along with this suspect. A mug shot of the suspect was passed around the briefing on the COPLINK PDA, and the surveillance agents were told of the suspect’s criminal history. Agents were able to see the suspect at another location during the investigation and verify it was the same person who was in the mug shot on the COPLINK PDA. This is an ongoing case, and specifics were left out of this narrative to protect the investigation, but the availability of COPLINK on a wireless PDA gave agents in the field real-time information about the suspects under surveillance, protecting both the safety of the agents and the integrity of the investigation.

In addition, Arizona’s law enforcement agencies have been working cooperatively with law enforcement agencies in Mexico to solve cross-border crimes. In June, a Tucson police officer used a COPLINK PDA to assist the Policia Estatal Investigadora from Nogales, Sonora, Mexico regarding a homicide suspect they were seeking. An officer from Nogales, Mexico requested assistance from Tucson in obtaining a photo of the suspect as well as any known address and information that might help identify the suspect. The Regional Mobile COPLINK Database turned out to be an excellent resource; the Tucson officer was able to provide the Nogales officer with a photo and a criminal history without tying up the Nogales Police Department dispatchers.

The Future of AZLink
The Department of Homeland Security’s Command, Control and Interoperability (CCI) Division, has provided funding to expand AZLink from a pilot project in southern Arizona to an initiative including agencies across the state as well as the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC). The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission has applied for federal funding to expand the capabilities of the AZLink program to include a two-fingerprint identification system, (2-FID), which is currently being used by the Arizona Department of Corrections and the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Individual regions continue to add more agencies; a plan is under way to connect the regions in early 2009.

Maricopa County Chief Deputy Ray Churay summed up the importance of the program. “Technology and practices that further the timely sharing and examination of information among agencies responsible for the security of the community, while maintaining citizen’s civil rights and privacy interests, is one of the highest priorities of modern law enforcement,” Churay said.

Mary Marshall is the public information officer and legislative liaison for the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission (ACJC). Before joining ACJC, she served as the communications manager for the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Fairfax, VA.

Published in Public Safety IT, Sep/Oct 2008

Rating : 9.8


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