Changing the Rules of the Game
- By John Monroe
- Apr 03, 2000
Solving a crime can be like playing the board game Clue: The key is to take
lists of names, weapons and places and find the links among them, creating
new leads or a short list of suspects to track down.
Unfortunately, as with Clue, information valuable to a case is often
in different hands, either stored in separate databases within a department
or in different jurisdictions altogether. An automobile or weapon involved
in one case, for example, might be associated with a suspect in a past case,
yet the police may not find the link.
But city police departments in Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz., are trying
to change the nature of the game with a project called CopLink.
The initiative, funded in part by a grant from the Justice Department's
National Institute of Justice, aims to make it easier to uncover those hidden
links by creating an Internet-based system for integrating and accessing
that data essentially, putting all the cards on the table.
It also sets the stage for an even more intriguing development, in which
the police can improve their ability to analyze that data by borrowing some
techniques from the government intelligence community.
CopLink, under development for more than two years, builds on the information
systems that many police departments have installed over the last several
years to manage their case reports, as well as their various databases of
names, weapons, automobiles and similar information.
The police keep such information indexed for future use, because people,
places and objects involved in past cases tend to appear again in other
Tucson police, for example, developed "better than average" records
management systems, said Sgt. Jennifer Schroeder, the city's CopLink project
manager. But, as in other cities, these efforts typically produced "isolated
systems in the department and a lot of different data sources that officers
had to look at to find information."
In 1996, when the Tucson Police Department began looking for a way to
fix this problem, a colleague studying for his Management Information Systems
degree introduced Schroeder to one of his professors, Hsinchun Chen, director
of the artificial intelligence laboratory at the University of Arizona in
Chen had tackled similar "knowledge management" problems encountered
at numerous government agencies, including the CIA and the Defense Department's
Advanced Research Project Agency.
Knowledge management generally refers to methods used to track and analyze
all the information stored in an organization's various data sources. The
key is to extract the information from those sources, consolidate it and
then index it so it is fully searchable, Chen said.
Once that work is done, an organization can begin "squeezing out the
intelligence," Chen said.
Working together on a proposal for an NIJ grant, the Tucson police and
the university developed a similar strategy for integrating police records.
NIJ funded the project in 1997, and the Phoenix police department signed
on after seeing a demonstration of a CopLink prototype.
CopLink is designed to bring together different types of information
that might be used to investigate a case.
For example, the police may have witnesses who saw a red Corvette, driven
by a male between 18 and 25 years old, leave a crime scene. The investigator
can cross-reference data on both people and automobiles to narrow the search,
then download mug shots of those people to show to witnesses.
Without the integration, that can be time-consuming, said Joe Hindman,
computer services administrator for the Phoenix Police Department.
The idea is not to integrate the original applications they run without
interruption. Instead, CopLink integrates the data, extracting it from the
applications and creating a new database or "data mart." This serves the
same purpose but eliminate the technical complexity of trying to combine
applications that were developed separately.
Tucson and Phoenix plan to have their basic systems in place by the
end of the year. Both departments plan to start with just a couple of databases,
adding others further down the road.
Police will be able to access CopLink through a secure Internet link
using a simple point-and-click Web browser interface. Because the system
is Internet-based, law enforcement personnel eventually could access the
data from any place that has an Internet link including a squad car equipped
with a laptop computer and wireless modem.
Likewise, the Internet provides an excellent tool for sharing information
Tucson and Phoenix, for example, plan to establish a secure Internet
link between their CopLink systems. The two cities account for about 65
percent to 70 percent of the cases in the state and now will be able to
share their data, Hindman said.
They said they hope other departments in major population areas will
set up their own CopLink systems and extend the network, through either
intranet or extranet connections. Additionally, departments in large cities
could also work with smaller departments in their own region to combine
data, as Phoenix is doing (see related story).
In such a scenario, each system essentially serves as a CopLink node,
maintained independently but accessible to all CopLink users. Police will
be able to compare information pulled from their own system with data stored
in a neighboring CopLink node.
The overall CopLink network will support any number of nodes without
suffering performance problems because each node has its own processing
power. "We have looked at quite a few applications, and this is the most
complete and scalable solution for law enforcement," Chen said.
Although the initial CopLink systems will not be in place until late
this year, both Tucson and Phoenix are looking forward to the next phase
of the program, when the real payoff could come.
The key to CopLink, of course, goes back to Clue: Police solve crimes
by finding links among different types of data, such as names, weapons and
places. Theoretically, the more data available, the more links might be
found. But the complexity of searches also increases with higher amounts
So the next logical step is to automate database searches.
Chen, in his work for the federal government, has done just that. Chen
specializes in a field of AI known as text mining. Text mining software
"reads" and analyzes documents, one word at a time, using linguistic analysis
to identify revealing patterns in the text.
The software is able to read through a large amount of information very
quickly to turn up links among different text elements that a person, working
alone, might not have found, such as a particular group of people using
particular weapons in a particular place.
In one of his early projects, Chen's program analyzed information in
the CIA's Russian computing database, looking for links that revealed which
particular scientist developed a particular project, or what offshoots that
Later, he worked with the National Cancer Institute to apply the software
to cancer research, reading through about one million medical abstracts
to identify key developments in medical protocol, gene research and other
Unlike standard databases, which provide only exact answers, this software
"suggests" possible links that can be tested with additional searches. In
successive searches, a person can use a process of "triangulation" to uncover
increasingly specific information, Chen said.
For example, an investigator may have information on a few names or
a weapon. He can enter that data into the system and see what associations
appear in the database. Those associations serve as leads for further research.
The software will be especially useful in working with the "narratives"
filed along with standard reports, Hindman said. "Officers do bury some
important information in the text, and this information is very valuable
in developing case leads," he said.
Going to Market
The people working on CopLink see the potential for this system to take
the law enforcement community by storm. They are not alone.
A group led by Chen recently founded Knowledge Computing Corp. to market
this technology to other law enforcement agencies and to the private sector.
Earlier this year, the company received $1.5 million in venture capital
CopLink "has the potential to be the national model for law enforcement
information sharing," said Chen, who is especially interested in seeing
applications where the police access CopLink through cellular networks.
"I am hoping in the next five years that 50 percent of agencies in the
nation will be using CopLink," he said.