Smartphone Software Gives Rochester, Minn., Police Relationship Insight

The department has been using an IBM-created investigative software for a little more than a year to help understand relationship associations between people they encounter on a relatively regular basis.

by Kay Fate, McClatchy News Service / April 7, 2014
The smartphones Rochester Police officers carry are about to get a whole lot smarter.

For Tim Heroff, captain of the services division, it also means his officers will be a whole lot safer.

The department has been using an IBM-created investigative software called Identity Insight, or i2, for a little more than a year "to help us understand the non-obvious relationship associations" between people they encounter on a relatively regular basis.

More Useful Data

Most record management systems have the ability to tell officers who's been directly associated with a vehicle; the i2, Heroff explained, "takes that out to several degrees of separation.

"That's what sets us apart from others," he said. "It's easy to keep track of who's associated with that vehicle, but when you add that next layer or two on, it's possible to see other associations.

"If we can map those connections, those associations, out a few layers, all of a sudden it makes sense that this guy would be out in that car" during any given crime, because he's linked with someone who's been linked with that vehicle in the past.

Heroff isn't aware of any other agencies in the country using it, but the department's programmers took it a step further.

"We actually wrote an Android app in-house that interfaced with the Identity Insight analytics," Heroff said.

How it Works

Every 10 seconds, i2 goes to the local dispatch system to look for any new information entered — things like license plate numbers, names or addresses, discovered from a traffic stop or other contact — and looks for associations with data already on hand.

Then, Heroff said, "the in-house application takes the information and filters it to look for three things: the most problematic and prolific serious offenders, someone who has an active warrant or someone on probation. If any of those three conditions exist within the two degrees of association, then we send out an alert to the officer assigned to the call within 5 seconds.

"What we're trying to do is provide our officers with a better understanding of the potential criminal environment that they're walking into," he said. "That's a pretty incredible accomplishment. We have some very talented folks here."

What They Use

Any information accessed comes only from what the local department has already documented, as well as from the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office, outstanding warrants databases, parole databases and public utility records.

"We're not reaching out to other sources of information, or even to other policing agencies," Heroff said, but that may soon change.

"We're looking at potential partnerships and opportunities to share and collaborate with the state of Minnesota, the (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) and other regional law enforcement agencies," he said. "We just need to figure out the policy implications; and technologically, we need to make the right connections, which boils down to time and money."

All in the Family

The i2 connection, Heroff said, "came about because one of our police officers has a brother who's an engineer at (Rochester's) IBM (facility). He recognized from the media that we're working on intelligence-led policing here, and thought that some IBM software might be able to assist in that ILP effort."

The department has worked with several local IBM employees, he said, and the company brought in others from across the country to help.

Intelligence-led policing, Heroff said, "is first and foremost a business philosophy, a way our entire agency is approaching what we do, but it's very much supported by the technology capabilities to share information. We're able to do so much more now than we have in the past."

The in-house app is being used in a limited fashion, starting with a small group of beta testers "to work the bugs out," Heroff said. "Over the course of the next couple of weeks, as we're able to roll out all of the phones, then all of our officers will have access to the application."

The officers will help fine-tune the process, he said, offering suggestions for some slightly different information, or may alter their standard process in order to take advantage of the information being sent.

Is it Legal?

"Our primary purpose is to uphold the Constitution," Heroff said, "so we're very careful about how we collect data and store and use data. The fact of the matter is, we're really doing nothing more than sifting through the data that we've already collected and coming up with a better understanding of what we've had in our system for years.

"We're certainly very cognizant of privacy issues," he said. "The state of Minnesota has privacy laws in place regarding appropriate use of data, as does the federal government."

Still, the department is "trying to be a bit proactive in that area. Chief (Roger) Peterson is meeting with people now on an ongoing basis, to be transparent and gain their support. We're making efforts to recognize those concerns and make sure that we can show that we're operating within the parameters that are set for us, so our citizens are able to have full confidence in what our police department's doing."

It's too soon to gauge the app's effectiveness in bringing down crime rates, and IBM doesn't offer any metrics on Identity Insight's success, saying only that "it mines the overall information landscape in real time, bringing to light all of the associations and occurrences involving the same person or a group."

A look at the city's crime rates between 2000 and 2012 shows that most major crimes have not fluctuated much over that time.

©2014 the Post-Bulletin