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High-Tech Police Work : Taking a Byte Out of Crime

Times Staff Writer

The day a still-hobbling Ken Delong returned to the Los Angeles police force after the horseback riding accident that almost claimed his life, a computer was waiting for him.

Cmdr. Larry Kramer was pointing at the thing.

“You shall,” Kramer told him.

“I said, ‘No I won’t. I’m a detective,’ ” Delong recalled. “And he said, ‘You’re stuck inside anyway. We need a computerized gang system.’ ”

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Four years later, Detective Ken Delong’s computer has a file on each of the 30,000 alleged gang members known to Los Angeles police. Now he is working on their photographs. In a month or two, if a witness to a drive-by shooting overhears one gunman calling another “Smokey,” a computer will pull up images of Crips and Bloods named Smokey. “You’ll have them in 10 seconds,” a proud Delong said.

The Computer Age

So it is that many law enforcement agencies are moving further into the computer age--a bit reluctantly at first, and a few years behind private industry, but with unmistakable momentum.

It’s happening despite tight budgets and natural resistance to high technology in a field where “everybody was hired to be a cop, a gunslinger,” in the words of Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block.

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It’s happening because a variety of high-tech tools have proven that they can make police work more effective, because private industry sees a promising new market and because many departments spawn converts such as Delong, who push for new gadgets from the inside.

In the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, it’s Undersheriff James Vizzolini, a self-styled “technology rat” who has computerized systems for dispatching squad cars, booking inmates into the jail and processing arrest warrants.

In Pasadena, Cmdr. Gary Bennett supervised the traffic squad that became the second in the nation to use a Swiss-made photo-radar system to catch speeders, even though it was certain to draw challenges from motorists and defense attorneys.

‘Behind the Private Sector’

“It seems ironic to talk about taking risks when you’re a police department,” Bennett said, “but when it comes to using new technology, I think we’re behind the private sector.”

And in Morgan Hill, a city of 24,000 south of San Jose, the impetus behind new technology was a whiz kid officer named Alec Gagne.

In 1984, at age 21, Gagne decided it was a waste of time to have to search through 3-by-5-inch index cards to get basic information on a vehicle that may have been used in a crime. Five years and four state grants later, Morgan Hill’s patrol cars have computers that would be the envy of the nation’s largest police forces; they can even display photographs of suspects transmitted from headquarters--something Delong’s computer in Los Angeles doesn’t do yet.

Today’s new product is likely to involve a computer of some sort: hand-held ones that spit out traffic tickets; million-dollar systems that track stolen cars, and computer programs that detect crime patterns and help detectives predict where a bank robber may strike next.

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But for top police officials, seeing does not necessarily mean believing--or buying. Sheriff Block, for instance, remembers very well one very low-tech purchase. “Our people still carry the capture net,” he said, shaking his head.

The $500 nets, which are weighted at the edges, made sense to many law enforcement agencies earlier this decade when they were confronted with an increasing number of people who went into tantrums after taking the hallucinogenic drug PCP.

The real-world problems with the nets became apparent only after they were placed in sergeants’ cars at the 21 sheriff’s stations. Recalled Block: “You have to have an individual who is clearly unarmed"--something not easily determined--"and who is acting deranged in an open area, where the deputies can get around him and throw it on him.”

Has to Stay Put

And the suspect has to stay put until a sergeant’s car arrives with the contraption.

The result? “It’s probably several years since they were used.”

“Some things come along that I consider toys,” the sheriff concluded, although not necessarily ready to retire the nets to fishing holes.

Nevertheless, Block’s department was one of the first to use $60,000 infrared scopes on helicopters to help find bodies on the ground, and the sheriff last month hosted a high-tech seminar that included demonstration of an Electrostatic Dust Print Lifter, which enables investigators to see otherwise invisible shoe prints by placing a static electrical charge on dust.

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But the big agencies inevitably are cautious, knowing that if they quickly embrace a new generation of bulletproof vest they risk being stuck with several thousand obsolete garments if an even lighter and stronger model comes along.

“I don’t believe government should be on the cutting edge of technology,” said Cmdr. Bill Kirtley of the sheriff’s Technical Services Division. “There’s too much that can go wrong. . . . We want to be near the cutting edge, but don’t want to be out there proving products for companies.”

Sheriff’s officials have learned through painful experiences how new technology can create unique dangers.

In 1987, an unauthorized “release message” on an internal computer enabled suspected Colombian drug dealer William Londono to slip out of the Central Jail. That same year, a veteran deputy was accused of tampering with a computer to erase traffic citations issued to his friends. Another deputy was accused--but eventually acquitted--of entering the license plate of her unpopular boss’ car into the state’s computerized list of stolen vehicles.

In the LAPD, as with the Sheriff’s Department, a new product must pass muster with an obstacle course of review panels and city agencies. Cmdr. Kramer was lucky, therefore, when he set out to upgrade the gang files in early 1985--he already had a small PC left over from the Olympics, a gift to the department.

“There was some skepticism and pessimism whether it was viable to automate gang statistics . . . people not willing to accept change,” Kramer said.

But Detective Delong was quickly “on line,” and within a year several thousand gang members were in the computer by name, gang, physical description and aliases. Previously, members of the anti-gang CRASH squads had to sift through index cards in four locations to see if a certain tattoo, vehicle or nickname might lead them to a suspect.

In 1986, the department obtained a state grant providing about $250,000 over four years for its Gang Reporting Evaluation and Tracking system--dubbed GREAT --to upgrade the computer, give terminals to all CRASH units and eventually link up with Sheriff’s Department and county probation gang files.

‘I Need You’

The next year, Delong was giving a talk to the Southern California Police Assn. when he was approached by John Doyle, a sales vice president for Edicon, a subsidiary of Kodak.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I need you,’ ” Delong recalled.

Edicon had developed a computer to store photographs, which it was selling mostly as a security system. But the company also was approaching police, hoping they would decide the Photoimage Management System could save time searching through mug shots, now often strewn in file drawers.

In Los Angeles, Delong served as “a champion” for the product in a series of meetings in the LAPD, Doyle said. Typical of the deals by which new technology is introduced into police work, however, the result was not an actual sale of the $250,000 system. Edicon would rent it to the city, and meanwhile develop a computer program to serve Delong’s needs.

There is no guarantee the LAPD will buy the system after testing it, but Doyle figures Edicon’s investment will not be wasted.

“What we expect to do is capitalize on their time and expertise to sell that software package or something similar to others,” he said.

Often the first sales are to small and mid-sized departments, where there’s no large bureaucracy. Delong noted with envy how easily one small Texas city was able to get a new computer program: “They used their narcotics forfeiture money. The chief told the lieutenant, ‘Write a check.’ ”

But money is a common barrier to acquiring new technology. According to a federal study, salaries and other daily operating expenses consumed more than 98% of the budgets of large police departments in 1987.

The LAPD’s current budget provides $10.1 million for vehicles, including helicopters, and only $847,000 for technical equipment.

“We want everything for free,” acknowledged Jan R. Duke, who is on the staff of the state’s law enforcement Command College.

Vizzolini, the Santa Barbara undersheriff, is an expert in the freebie game. He went into action in 1986 after state legislation implementing the Cal-ID network did not include his department among those getting significant access to technology that was revolutionizing fingerprint analysis.

Cal-ID is a computer system that can store the prints of millions of past offenders, then scan them for links to a print fragment found at a crime scene. The system gained instant renown when it matched in three minutes a print found near a Night Stalker assault with a then-unknown suspect, Richard Ramirez. He is now on trial.

Vizzolini sought out Fingermatrix, a White Plains, N.Y., company that was starting to market potentially even more advanced fingerprint equipment--"live scanning” computers that take and store prints electronically. They promise to save time and storage space while eliminating smudging and inking problems.

In 1987, the department got on “extended loan” a fingerprint computer that was the product of more than $1 million in research.

David G. Hall, who directs the marketing for Fingermatrix, said the company got in return “a good showcase” in California, where the Department of Justice is planning to buy about 300 scanners. Several companies will bid for what will be the first major sale of the devices--at up to $80,000 each--in the country.

In May, Fingermatrix used Santa Barbara to introduce another product, one to transmit fingerprints to and from patrol cars. As with other devices that suggest James Bond approaches to crime fighting, it drew a good turnout of media and law enforcement dignitaries.

“Dick Tracy would be proud of us,” Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp said after the unveiling of the apparatus, which is centered on a miniature index-finger scanner.

As a company statement described it, a motorist stopped by police for a routine traffic violation might be asked to stick his finger in the scanner. The print then would be matched against those of “wanted” people kept by the FBI, which is considering a pilot project to enable the remote units to tap into its National Crime Information Center.

Under the scenario, the print shows that the motorist--who displayed a seemingly legitimate license--has “a record on file under a different name and is wanted in three states for brutal crimes.”

The cost: $2,500 for each car equipped.

Although many officials may put the device on their “wish lists” when it is perfected, they expect that civil liberties objections would make it difficult to use as routinely as the company suggests.

‘It Will Not Work That Way’

“You’re not just going to drive around and put everyone’s finger in there,” Los Angeles Sheriff’s Cmdr. Kirtley said. “In actual operations it will not work that way, I can assure you.”

A police chief considering the $2,500 fingerprint apparatus may find himself weighing it against other types of computers that go in patrol cars. Does he want to use LoJack to quickly locate stolen cars? How about lap-tops, with which the officer could write a crime report even while interviewing a robbery victim? Or simpler mobile-digital terminals, the type pioneered by the LAPD, so patrol officers can communicate with headquarters without having to use public radio frequencies.

“The thing I always ask,” said Duke of the Command College, “is when are they going to come up with cars big enough for us to put all that stuff in?”

LoJack Corp., of Braintree, Mass., experienced one of the hazards of introducing a new crime-fighting tool--the political factor.

LoJack had followed the freebie route to showcase its stolen car tracking computer, developing it in a pilot program with Massachusetts State Police. When the system went operational in 1986, the company began making some money by selling motorists $600 transmitters, which must be planted in cars for police to track them.

LoJack got a big break when the “Today Show” did a feature on the Massachusetts project in 1987. The LAPD called, leading to a 1 1/2-year test by its evaluations-and-audits unit, in which participating officers found more than 100 cars hidden around the area.

State Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), the former Los Angeles police chief, introduced legislation calling for the state to spend $1 million on tracking equipment for 200 patrol cars. The bill sailed through the state Senate, but stalled in the Assembly amid lobbying by California auto security firms. Their leader complained that the state was giving “a virtual monopoly on the auto recovery system to an out-of-state corporation.”

LoJack abandoned the $1-million sale. Instead, it simply gave the system to Los Angeles.

“That doesn’t mean that will be a continuing practice,” a frustrated LoJack President C. Michael Daley said.

Zev Fogel and Alan Viterbi are partners in a year-old firm that is marketing two devices--the parking ticket computer and photo radar. Viterbi, a former West Hollywood mayor, gave up a promising political career to devote all his time to the business, U.S. Public Technologies, which has offices in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix.

Recently, the two men found themselves in Manhattan Beach City Hall, hoping to sell eight Japanese-made parking ticket computers.

Such devices, which cost about $3,000 each, have been adopted by dozens of communities throughout the country. San Diego uses them, Long Beach recently bought 46 and Los Angeles--where 50,000 citations are dismissed each year because of illegible handwriting--is preparing to test them.

‘It Will Save You Time’

In Manhattan Beach, where there are three bidders for the contract, members of the city’s Community Services Department tentatively passed around one of the small computers, not unlike young fathers trying to figure out how to cradle a baby.

“You don’t have to be afraid of it,” Fogel said. “It will save you time, it will save you aggravation.”

The device automatically signals if a car should be towed because of unpaid citations. City officials also can use it to track the work habits of the meter checkers, although this is hardly a feature the salesmen emphasize when showing it to the workers themselves.

A week later, he and Viterbi were in Santa Cruz, hoping that it would become the fourth city in the country to adopt photo radar. With the help of Robert Umbdenstock, whose business imports the $40,000 device from Switzerland, they set up a demonstration; soon it was snapping pictures of cars going over the 25-m.p.h. speed limit.

“Come on, guys, be the first on your block to have one,” Umbdenstock muttered.

In communities using photo radar, some motorists invariably complain that the photographs invade their privacy (they can show a man riding with a woman other than his wife), and others just don’t like a contraption that changes the ground rules by which police chase speeders.

The key to the marketing process, therefore, is to find officials, such as Pasadena’s Cmdr. Bennett, willing “to take the heat, the controversy associated with this.” Even then, because photo radar has not yet survived broad legal challenges, U.S. Public Technologies and two competing firms know that it would be futile to sell the apparatus to police. So they loan it out and process the tickets themselves for a commission, usually $20 a ticket.

While some new devices originate with companies seeking a profit, others are born in the field, the inspiration of officers facing a problem.

A member of a Los Angeles SWAT team, worried about searching attics for suspects, developed a special long periscope. Morgan Hill’s Gagne similarly came up with his “photo-imaging” system through his own tinkering.

Gagne had already helped set up a central computer for his department when he decided that it would be nice to have in-car units as well. He approached the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning, which gives out “state-of-the-art” grants.

“They said, ‘We will not fund you for those. It is not state of the art,’ ” he recalled.

“So I gave it a little thought and said, ‘How about if I transmit mug shots?’ ”

He got $80,000.

The kicker was that there really was not much need for such a process in Morgan Hill, a quiet bedroom and ranch community. While a big-city patrol officer might require a photo to help determine the identity of a suspect who refused to give his name, “a majority of the officers here, when they see a crook on the street, they recognize him,” Gagne noted.

But he got the computers he wanted. In headquarters, he connected a video camera with a mainframe, then found a special modem that could send the image out as dots over radio frequencies. Finally, he placed lap-top units on the dash boards of patrol cars to re-create the image.

Although the process is not ready for everyday use--it takes too long, 15 minutes--Gagne has some ideas on how to improve it.

Inspired by his work, the state Department of Justice this month began studying the feasibility of a statewide computer-video network, Cal-Photo, to enable many law enforcement agencies to almost instantly retrieve photographs of people with arrest records, missing persons, suspected terrorists or others.

Said Gagne: “There are officers who have been in the business a long time who are a little hesitant, who will never buy into computers. On the other hand, there’s a new generation coming into the business who don’t know what it’s like to operate without them. . . . Using the computer to them is as common as putting on a badge.”

CRIME-FIGHTING GOES HIGH-TECH

These are among the projects pending to develop high-tech crime-fighting tools:

LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT

Voiceprints

Helped by $220,000 from the National Institute of Justice and $60,000 from the Secret Service, a sheriff’s team has been working for more than three years on a computerized system of analyzing voices.

Although voiceprints have been accepted as evidence in more than two dozen states, they were rejected by the California Supreme Court in 1976 “until the time when there is demonstrated solid scientific support.” A two-man sheriff’s team has taken up the challenge of improving traditional voiceprint analysis, in which voice patterns are plotted on paper graphs, then interpreted.

LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT

Lap-top computers

The LAPD in May obtained a $246,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to conduct a two-year study on the use of lap-top computers to write police reports.

St. Petersburg, Fla., “started a revolution in police reporting” by developing an automated system, notes the application. But it is another matter to develop a system that can replace the block lettering with which LAPD officers write 3 million reports a year.

The LAPD proposes to funnel the reports into a central data base that can calculate crime statistics and detect crime patterns. The department will develop a training program for participating officers, including “access to computer games to increase familiarity.”

Under the system now, the grant application says, “It is conservatively estimated that 15 to 20% of an officer’s time is spent taking reports,” which “are often difficult to read, incomplete, or not presented in a logical or sequential manner.”

ORANGE COUNTY SHERIFF/CORONER’S DEPARTMENT

DNA laboratory

The Orange County Sheriff’s Advisory Council threw a party in April to raise $200,000 in private funds for what Sheriff Brad Gates called “a Star Wars product.” Gates’ chief criminologist, Margaret Kuo, wanted to start a DNA testing lab.

Ask law enforcement officials to name the most significant high-tech development and “DNA fingerprinting” likely will be first on the list. By matching patterns in the genetic material, it enables authorities to tie a suspect to a rape or other crime scene through tiny samples of body tissue or fluid. In January, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp gave California prosecutors the go-ahead to bring such evidence to court.

PASADENA

Red light surveillance camera

Although Pasadena police have gained a reputation for trying new technology, that doesn’t mean they endorse everything they try. A recent test of a computerized surveillance camera to catch people running red lights--a system that also has been tested in New York--produced disappointing results, Lt. Robert Huff said. Some cars triggered the device when they merely nosed into an intersection.

But Pasadena officials were very pleased with their first 12 months with Swiss-made photo-radar equipment. Although the device has the ability to photograph more than 200 speeders an hour, it was used in moderation; it was activated 800 hours and generated 8,877 tickets.

Whereas 9.2% of all cars were speeding past the device when it first was used, Huff noted, only 4.5% did so by the end of the year.


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