December 31, 1997 By Raymond Dussault
In the parking lot of a convenience store crime scene, an investigating officer uses his laptop and cellular phone, and within a few minutes he can be on GangNet, typing in information. The system conducts suspect searches much the same way an Internet search engine might find a book on horticulture, only now the keywords include a physical description and a dragon tattoo.
The officer might get 50 matches, so he adds the stutter and a BMW. Minutes later, six known gang members meet the criteria. Right there in the parking lot, while the witness' memory is still fresh, the officer creates an electronic photo lineup. A suspect is pointed to, and the officer is back on the computer. Within a couple more minutes he will have everything that is known about the suspect, including listed addresses, criminal record, known associates, the car's full description and plate number -- maybe even a photo of the car. Other officers could be moving to make an arrest before lab techs have even dusted the crime scene for prints.
"The system is just now going online for us, but we have been extremely impressed by its thoroughness and ease of use," added Sergeant Roland Camacho, with the San Diego Police Dept.'s Street Gang Unit. "It provides incredibly quick access to data and helps us create a photo lineup in just a couple of minutes."
"Speed and ease of use were our main goals in the development of GangNet. 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," said Tom Gates, director of Special Projects for Orion. "This is probably the most user-friendly system ever made for law enforcement -- it is like having a dog that walks itself."
Gang members have become increasingly violent and mobile in recent years, and while California's use of the system will help with tracking a gang member who moves from Los Angeles to Sacramento, many of them move farther -- to Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash., or other cities.
In fact, the National Street Gang Study, recently conducted by the National Drug Intelligence Center, surveyed 341 agencies across the country. Eighty-eight percent reported gang activity -- 98 percent in cities with a population over 100,000, and 58 percent where the populations were under 50,000.
Even more surprising was the gang members' amazing reach. Illinois-based gangs and gang members were found to be active in 135 jurisdictions and 35 states, while California-based gangs reached even farther -- into 180 jurisdictions and 42 states.
Still, a big challenge for Orion will be convincing agencies across the country to fund GangNet. It is not terribly expensive -- individual server licenses are about $30,000 -- and the system becomes stronger as more communities log on.
Federal and state regulations determine the criteria for when an individual can be considered a gang member. As a result, law enforcement officers must have confirmation of certain behaviors -- use of gang signs, affiliation with identified gang members or other possible indicators -- before they can identify someone as a gang member.
The federal regulation, and more restrictive state rules that can vary, are designed to protect innocent people from damaging labels. For this reason, GangNet is very specific to street gangs. However, Orion is marketing a generic system to track suspected gang members, white collar criminals and other
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