Database lets police share crime info

Months before it will be fully operational, a St. Louis regional crime database is demonstrating its crime-fighting finesse.

"We were just toying with it and we picked some names randomly," said U.S. Attorney Raymond Gruender. When investigators typed a name from a drug case into the database, the search function told them the suspect also was being investigated by another agency for mail fraud.

It took the database seconds to make the match, said Gruender, who presides over the Justice Department's Eastern District of Missouri.

"It might have taken six months — or it might not have been done at all" without help from the database, Gruender said. "This has the potential to be a quantum leap in crime fighting." It's called the Gateway Information Sharing Project. Justice officials expect the project to be fully functional by mid-December, when the database will contain crime investigation data from about a dozen law enforcement agencies that operate in southern Illinois and eastern Missouri.

"What makes this unique is it's got [a] mix of federal, state and local data," Gruender said. There will be FBI data — "raw reports and interviews," not just final case documents — in the database. There will be police reports and investigation data, highway patrol incident records, sheriff's department write-ups and even information from the St. Louis Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The agencies that contribute to the database will be able to tap into it. So, the Collinsville, Ill., Police Department will have instant access to information from investigations conducted by the FBI. And the Illinois State Police will be able to search through data collected by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

Law enforcement officials will be able to search the data by text, Gruender said. So investigators will be able to type in names, addresses, phrases, vehicle makes, weapons data and other key terms — even scars and tattoos, according to Justice officials — to retrieve information from other cases that might be relevant to a case they are investigating.

Investigators then can export the retrieved data to analytical software that can identify and graphically depict relationships among people, vehicles, weapons, phone numbers and other components of the crimes. "There was nothing that linked this information together before," Gruender said.

"The potential is enormous," said Gerrit Gillespie, police chief of Collinsville.

When connected to the system, investigators expect to be able to enter information about a crime — details about a burglary, for example — and find similar crimes that are being investigated in other jurisdictions, where authorities may already have identified a suspect or made an arrest.

The ability to instantly tap the investigative data of neighboring jurisdictions should be a major crime-solving asset, Gillespie said. Crime in places like Collinsville, a town of 25,000 about 10 miles east of St. Louis, is often linked to crime in neighboring jurisdictions, he said.

Local law enforcement departments including Collinsville expect to begin using the system in December.

The crime-fighting potential of the Gateway Information Sharing Project is so promising that Attorney General John Ashcroft highlighted it during a mid-October swing through Missouri, his home state. "This revolutionary system will enable investigators to identify intelligence gaps and to see tangible links between seemingly unrelated investigations," Ashcroft said.

The project began in 1999 as the St. Louis Intelligence Center, which was intended to bring together federal, state and local law enforcement data to better fight drug trafficking and violent crime.

But the project sputtered along until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which made clear the value of information sharing among law enforcement and intelligence agencies. At that point, the FBI became more actively involved, Gruender said.

The FBI is sponsoring similar police information-sharing databases in Norfolk, Va., San Diego, Seattle and Baltimore.

If the regional databases are successful, they could be models for a nationwide information program among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, Justice officials said.

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