LAPD Hopes to Add High-Tech Partner to Force

Times Staff Writers

Every crime fighter needs a sidekick. For Batman it was Robin. For Starsky it was Hutch. For Sherlock Holmes it was Dr. Watson.

And if LAPD Assistant Chief George Gascon gets his way, Los Angeles police officers will soon have a new digital partner.

Named COPLINK, it is a computer program that can do in minutes what would take an LAPD detective weeks.

The system makes many police databases detailing everything from arrests to gang names to 911 calls work as one. COPLINK then sifts those millions of pieces of information and produces connections from seemingly insignificant pieces of data.

"This technology can connect the dots in crimes like never before, and it will save lives," said Gascon, who runs daily operations of the Los Angeles Police Department.

The LAPD maintains 20 databases. To search them all, officers must make separate trips to various terminals. Some cannot search by phrases or words, severely limiting their usefulness.

Gascon said high-tech law enforcement tools such as COPLINK are the wave of the future. Computer-assisted policing programs are part of a nationwide push by law enforcement toward use of technology to make up for understaffed police agencies.

Much like militaries that use small strike forces equipped with high-technology weapons to knock out larger, less sophisticated enemies, police are turning to the keyboard over shoe leather to nab suspects.

COPLINK is part of a new science of data-mining algorithms that allows a computer to make high-speed connections that would take a human weeks. The systems, Gascon said, provide a kind of instant institutional memory, like a veteran detective who never forgets.

More than 100 agencies nationwide use COPLINK. The latest to sign up is the San Diego Police Department, joining Boston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, all the police agencies in Alaska, and the first agency, the Tucson Police Department.

Rivals include the aptly named Holmes II and Watson. Holmes II is used extensively by British police agencies to combine data resources. Watson, according to its designers, is used by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department to do similar work.

COPLINK was born in a university lecture room, the fortuitous result of a police officer who went back to college.

In 1996, Hsinchun Chen, director of the University of Arizona's artificial intelligence laboratory, was discussing with students the ability to consolidate vast amounts of information from disparate data sources.

A police sergeant told Chen how his department faced a daily dilemma of trying to combine data on suspects, vehicles, crimes, mug shots and gang intelligence.

"For an investigator to get a complete picture of a suspect, they would literally have to go to a different terminal, and that would take a lot of time," said Bob Fund, COPLINK project manager.

"For the mug shot, there were 10 terminals for the whole department, and you had to stand in line and wait your turn."

So Chen -- who has worked with the Department of Defense and CIA on records management -- and the Tucson police teamed up. With a grant from the National Institutes of Justice, they leveraged the academic research into a practical application. By 2000, the department had a working system and the research had spawned a software patent and a business.

Fund likes to cite the case of the Lucky Wishbone. That's the name of a fast-food chicken chain in Tucson, which in 2000 became the favorite target of two robbers. The men used masks on all but one occasion, when a witness recognized one of them. But all the witness could recall was that the suspect went by the moniker "Peanut," Fund said.

So, detectives enlisted the software to link items in the department's databases on gang affiliations, prison records and arrests and half a dozen other systems. The system combined the nickname with a physical description of the suspect.

The search not only identified a suspect, but thanks to an interface with public records databases, it produced his address. He was convicted of armed robbery.

Gascon said he hopes to use it to search for crimes of a similar nature across a wide area. "Most crimes are committed by a small group of criminals already in our databases," he said.

Gascon said he wants to add data from other Los Angeles County law enforcement databases and share that information with those departments because criminals don't follow jurisdictional boundaries.

Art Placencia, a Hollywood homicide detective and president of the Latin American Law Enforcement Assn., said his group thinks so highly of the proposal that it too is lobbying businesses for dollars to buy the technology.

"I've spent 36 years on the department -- many of those years as a detective -- and this would be a great investment," he said.

But given the city budget crunch, the LAPD has been forced to turn to grants and private funding for the $750,000 pilot program for the region.

"I want to get this up and running by February," said Gascon, who recently took over as chief of the LAPD's daily operations.

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