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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