Drugs are problem No. 1 for Massachusetts law enforcement agencies, but gangs are second and gaining ground.
Officials there are countering with a statewide database called MassGangs that collects information about gangs and allows access to information from neighboring jurisdictions. The database breaks the barriers to information sharing that previously inhibited gang investigations.
"The gangs in Massachusetts are very transient," said Lowell Police Department Sgt. David Peaslee. "They travel from city to city here very fluently." He said if he suspects someone is a gang member, he has to call around and have different departments check their individual databases for information. The MassGangs database will eliminate that legwork by allowing officers to access and search data themselves.
Once the system is populated with data, it will link information gathered by various agencies, including the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Rollout of the system began in January, and the process was well under way in late March as determinations were being made about the participation of federal partners.
The system was funded by a $2 million federal Bureau of Justice Assistance grant from fiscal 2006. Investigators from the Massachusetts State Police, FBI and several local police departments contributed to the database's development.
Currently each department has individual databases, according to Lt. John Goodwin, a gang unit supervisor for the Revere Police Department, which helped build the database. He said traditionally an officer does a field interview and observation (FIO), takes a picture and records that information in his or her database. No other agencies or departments get that information unless they call and ask for it specifically.
"We shared it on a personal basis. Like if I had a relationship with a guy at the Lynn [Police Department] we'd talk on a regular basis," Goodwin said. "This gives us one central location to drop this information so we can share the intelligence."
Goodwin used an example of a 2007 case to illustrate how the database can benefit gang investigations. "Chelsea has a shooting that's gang involved and ends up being a homicide. They have a description of the car and the parties involved. Two or three hours prior, Revere was doing an FIO on the beach, and we took pictures of the car and everything.
"That information would never have been shared if we hadn't had a personal relationship with the officers at Chelsea," he said.
Data enters the system two ways, according to Tracy Varano, project manager of the Criminal History Systems Board, which helped develop MassGangs. One is through the electronic exchange of information between agencies via existing lines of communication, such as the Department of Correction and the Criminal History Systems Board. In this case, corrections officials send their data electronically. The second way for data population is to go into the MassGangs database directly and enter it into a queue to be reviewed. In either case, the data is checked before it's entered into the statewide system.
"There's a supervisory review," Varano said. "All records have to be reviewed and signed off by a supervisor within each agency. We're not blindly inserting them into the system."
Goodwin is adamant that not everyone "who has his hat on crooked" is labeled a gang member. To that end, a point system is used to determine if a person is eligible to be listed as a gang member. "There are criteria that give it some credibility," Goodwin said.
Police assign a point value for 17 different gang-related criteria, including self-admission, known group tattoos, group-related photos and group-related clothing. Officers can enter the information from a mobile data terminal or a desktop computer. A point total of 10
or more lands the subject in the gang database, but only temporarily. Records are purged every 60 months if they aren't updated with activities that reflect gang membership.
"Some kids straighten out their lives, have babies, move on," Goodwin said.
Massachusetts looked at states like California that have deployed similar systems. Massachusetts decided to partner with xFact, a local software company, to develop an in-house system. "We decided it would be best to acquire a contractor to develop the system to align closely with other current applications so they have a similar look and feel to reduce overhead for training," Varano said.
Goodwin acknowledged that the database will be challenged by defense attorneys and others. He said it's imperative that the information is handled carefully.
"You can't give 10 people in the department access to entering the information because you want the information scrutinized before it goes in to make sure it's credible," Goodwin said. "You don't want every cop out there stopping every kid with an attitude and saying he's a gang member. In my department, there will be one guy with access."
Goodwin said adding people to the database should be done for the right reasons, not just because it's there. "It won't be for a guy smoking a joint on the beach; it will be for shootings and other, major offenses."
Other states have received criticism for building huge databases of gang members, many of whom were not actively in gangs. Former California attorney general and current treasurer Bill Lockyer criticized the state's CAL/GANG database because it had more than 100,000 names in it. Lockyer said the database shouldn't be used to decide whether a person is dangerous or should be arrested.
Boston College law professor Robert Bloom said information in the database is data police have anyway. "Police operate based on uncertainties. Probable cause or reasonable suspicion is not something precise," Bloom said, "so to the extent they're providing information that may be useful, in terms of law enforcement, I think it's useful information."
Goodwin hopes other police departments take the system seriously and feed it good, credible information. "In theory, it's fantastic. It opens a lot of doors. Say I'm working a homicide and go in [to the database] and say, 'Where's this guy been?' If they're dumping information into it in Springfield, I'll have access to it."
He says it could take longer to develop than expected because of the lack of manpower plaguing most police departments and the massive amount of data being entered by the Department of Correction.
"We'll see if departments make the commitment to putting the information in. In my department, I know I'm going to be wearing three hats," Goodwin said. "I'm hoping it does take off because the last five or six years, everything is about information sharing. And it works -- when it's done right."