CAL/GANG Brings Dividends

A statewide database on gang members continues to help California officers solve crimes faster, cheaper and more often.

by / November 30, 1998
It isn't always the case, but sometimes a technological solution can provide just that -- solutions.

Last January, the California Department of Justice went online with CAL/GANG, an Internet-linked software package that has given law enforcement agencies throughout the state a chance to compile important data on violent criminal gangs in a usable form.

"This system is working incredibly wonderfully," gushed Don Mace, investigator in charge of CAL/GANG for the California Department of Justice (DOJ). "The biggest problem we have had is in underestimating how well it would work, how much it would help and how quickly local law enforcement would embrace the system. We went from 366 end-users on the first day to over 1,600 now, and growing every day. It helps solve cases -- what more can you ask?"

In less than 12 months, CAL/GANG has helped law enforcement officials throughout the state stamp "case solved" on a significant number of files.

Perhaps the most visible of these was the gang rape in May of three juvenile girls by 14 male gang members. The crime happened in a Fresno hotel, where the girls were lured into a room by a couple of underaged suspects, and were then attacked by the others -- all members of the Mongolian Boys Society, one of many Asian gangs that have sprung up throughout California. In this case, it is possible the criminals would not have faced justice without CAL/GANG; certainly the process would have been longer, more arduous and time-consuming without
the database.

"We had one word to go on -- Bolo. It was a name one of the [victims] remembered being used in the room," said Jim Kerns, deputy sheriff in charge of the CAL/GANG node in Fresno. "We didn't know whether it was a first name, a last name or a moniker. Maybe it had no meaning at all. Turns out that Bolo was one of the gang member's street names. That information turned up in CAL/GANG and gave us his real name. From there we went to work and now every one of those guys has pled and will be going to prison for 22 to 24 years."

All over the state, cops are reporting successes from CAL/GANG. South of Fresno, in Kern County, the system provided the information necessary to conclusively refute a murder suspect's alibi.

"Members of our gang-suppression unit were able to refute an alibi of a homicide suspect simply by retrieving a 3-year-old field interview card from CAL/GANG," said Carl Sparks, sheriff of Kern County, in a letter thanking Gov. Pete Wilson for funding the system. "The application is extremely vital in our day-to-day work and instrumental in our effort to suppress street-gang criminal activity."

CAL/GANG, known as GangNet outside California, is a sophisticated relational database developed by Orion Scientific Systems Inc. of Irvine, Calif. It's a relational database that holds and categorizes everything from nicknames to tattoos on suspected or known gang members. It was designed based on the idea that gangs of every type survive and prosper by creating internal links and tiers of power. CAL/GANG allows officers to use this information to track, analyze and retrieve data collected about gangs, including individual gang members' photos and addresses, the places they hang out or live, known associates, even the cars they drive. CAL/GANG puts all this fragmented information together, allowing an investigating officer to quickly link disparate information. The system has been developed so that it can be accessed quickly from an agency's offices or even through a laptop computer in the field.

In fact, all an officer needs is a computer, a Web browser and a password.

"Speed and ease of use were our main goals in development of CAL/GANG," said Tom Gates, a former FBI agent who works for Orion. "We have a lot of former law enforcement people on our staff and we worked with professionals outside of Orion to develop a system that was designed by police officers for police officers. This is probably the most user-friendly system ever made for law enforcement -- it is like having a dog that walks itself."

"We started out thinking we might need up to two days to train officers to use the system. Then we cut that back to eight hours. The reality is that it only takes a little under four hours," Fresno's Kerns said. "I am certainly no computer nerd; I'm just a cop off the street, but I'm running our node. This system is extremely user-friendly, especially at the view-only level."

The California DOJ was the first organization to implement the system, but it is now being considered by several other states, including Florida, which has a significant gang problem. In California, CAL/GANG is set up with a master node at the DOJ's Sacramento office, with nine other nodes throughout the state. It is essentially a statewide intranet -- a gang-related clearing-house for information.

"We had been working on getting a statewide system for tracking gang affiliations and information for about 31/2 years, but it wasn't until a couple years ago that the technology for open systems architecture made CAL/GANG possible," Mace said. "This system makes it easier and cheaper than we ever imagined possible. It is all point-and-click and pull-down menus; I can go through an entire demonstration of the system and maybe type two keys. All an officer requires to access the system is a computer and a Netscape browser."

Fresno's dedicated Multi-agency Gang Enforcement Consortium, made up of officers from various area law enforcement agencies, has even used CAL/GANG to help solve a case from out of state. Two suspected gang members were identified in Federal Way, Wash., recruiting girls and taking them back to California to work as prostitutes. By the time police were involved, the suspects had disappeared with four juveniles in tow. Old-fashioned policework came up with the facts that the men hailed from California, possibly Fresno, and their nicknames. One of those nicknames was so distinctive that it immediately produced a hit on CAL/GANG. A photo line-up was created on CAL/GANG, printed out and expressed to Washington. The suspects were picked out by witnesses and they are now awaiting prosecution on federal and state charges of conspiracy and prostitution.

In another case, CAL/GANG helped identify suspects in a gang shooting in record time. Starting with a physical description, officers identified a suspect and then used the system's ability to create visual-link diagrams to identify fellow gang members and hangouts. Five hours later, they had a 15-year-old suspected shooter and two possible accomplices in custody, as well as the handgun involved.

"Everyone wants access to the system, and every day our list of successes seems to grow," said Kerns, who added that the price tag for a local node -- about $200,000 a year in support and personnel costs -- is well worth it. "That may seem like a lot, but when you consider that one homicide can cost $3 million over a couple of years, and with CAL/GANG we might solve it in five minutes -- does the cost seem high then?"
Raymond Dussault is a Sacramento, Calif.-based writer and a research director for the Law Enforcement Technology Acquisition Project.

Editor's note: CAL/GANG was featured in "GangNet: A New Tool in the War on Drugs," January 1998.

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