App Helps Police Manage 'Gypsy Hill' Cold Case Murder Investigation

South San Francisco's IT department created an app for the city's police department that helped officers visualize reports from the field while investigating a murder case from 1976.

by / August 6, 2015

Earlier this year, the city of South San Francisco's Police Department (SSFPD) faced a challenge. The department was asked to re-open a cold case known as the Gypsy Hill murders, which involved five homicides in multiple Bay Area locations and one in Reno in 1976.

As part of the investigation, SSFPD was asked to spearhead a multi-jurisdictional task force that included the cities of South San Francisco, Millbrae, Daly City and Pacifica, as well as the FBI. The task force was asked to canvass four widely dispersed neighborhoods in three separate cities.

In the past, police personnel relied on hard copy maps and forms to track their progress during such operations. But because of the larger scope of this investigation, SSFPD needed a more sophisticated tool. In February, a senior member of the police force approached the city of South San Francisco Information Technology department and asked them to help SSFPD develop a tool that would allow them to visualize reports from the field.

“The need was to expedite the collection and coordination of the investigation,” said Doug Hollis, chief innovation officer of South San Francisco. “They needed to communicate better in the field and in the office so they could get immediate, visual feedback of who’s collected what, what kind of response they got, and where they needed to focus next.”
 
The IT department embraced the challenge.
 
Realizing that the timeline was extremely short (the first day of canvassing was 18 days from project conception) and the budget limited, IT staff knew they needed a simple but effective solution.
 
“New software or hardware acquisition would not be possible based on the timeline and budget outlined by the police department,” said Justin Anderson, city of South San Francisco GIS coordinator. “We’d needed to leverage an in-house solution using existing technology.”
 
Originally SSFPD planned to continue having officers collect information via pen and paper and manually feeding it into a database. IT would simply come up with a way to project the data so everyone involved could see what was going on and could visually track the progress made at each property via simple color codes.
 
But IT had another idea.
 
“Instead of doing the hard copy, assuming that officers in the field would be equipped with smartphones or tablets, we wanted to add the capacity to enter the data directly from a handheld device, cutting out the slow, manual processes altogether,” said Anderson.
 
SSFPD liked the idea, but because the task members were coming from a broad range of agencies, they didn’t know which type of device they would be bringing to the field.
 
“The solution therefore had to be map driven and device agnostic,” Anderson said.
 
The IT team chose to use Esri’s ArcGIS JavaScript API, HTML5 and Mobile JQuery in creating the solution. The free tools, Hollis said, would “promote agile development and a small footprint consumable in a field environment."
 
The desktop version of the app was created first. By interacting with the map portion, users would be able to alter the attribute values of displayed properties that officers in the field had visited. Clicking on an individual property would set a custom data entry screen to editable. Key information such as time of contact, officer on site and, most importantly, status of contact (whether the property had been visited, was helpful to the investigation, or needed to be visited again) could then be entered. As soon as edits to the associated data table were complete, the interactive map was automatically updated. Once displayed on a large screen at operational headquarters, an entire room of officers could get a visual progress report of the investigation.
 
The mobile version of the application worked in a similar fashion, but was not dependent on the map interaction. A simple form would contain pre-populated site addresses, so a few keystrokes pulled up all likely address candidates. Most other values appeared as pull-down values, minimizing the amount of data entry required by field officers. When a record was set to editable, indicating a visit to a neighborhood property, the common central database would be updated. By glancing at the accompanying mobile map, officers would be able to see exactly where they had been, as could command staff back at operational headquarters, Hollis said.
 
South San Francisco IT staff first developed a prototype version of the Web app and tested it over a four-day period. They then presented it to a group of representatives from the various law enforcement agencies participating in the investigation. Based on feedback, an embedded legend, changes to the colors differentiating property status, and a final list of addresses that the task force intended to visit were quickly incorporated. The application was then ready for field deployment.
 
“Task force officers were able to record the results of the visits they made to hundreds of properties,” Hollis said. “Not only did this help command staff quickly organize the areas to visit, but it also allowed managers to asses in real time which properties should be revisited and which to target for further follow-up. This allowed same-day property revisits even by different shifts of officers and immediate scheduling of future follow-up visits. It also greatly aided in the larger neighborhoods where canvassing was scheduled over multiple days. Having a database record of the entire effort also promises to aid in future analysis of the investigation.”
 
Feedback from police staff was very positive, according to Hollis.

“The application saved officers a tremendous amount of work while requiring no further IT involvement," he said. "One task force member recommended the app to her police chief, and several other departments within South San Francisco have expressed strong interest in using the app for their purposes. It was a great exercise between multiple agencies, and we were able to turn it around and create it in about two weeks.”

In April of this year, Anderson said the IT department was approached to help with a similar but unrelated activity. Having heard about the app developed for SSFPD, San Mateo County Health staff asked the IT department to modify it for their annual preparedness exercise, dubbed Silver Dragon. The exercise tests the health system’s ability to partner with local cities, law enforcement, fire departments, American Red Cross and Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), who simulate going door-to-door to check in on residents in neighborhoods selected for the exercise. The app was used to map and report back on properties that had been visited as part of the test. 

Though the Gypsy Hill killer has been identified as Rodney Halbower, who has spent most of his life in prison, the case has not yet gone to trial. As of late May, Halbower had not entered a plea, according to a local Bay Area news outlet, which also reported that a judge has ordered a psychiatric review to determine if Halbower is sane enough to stand trial.

Justine Brown Contributing Writer