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GangNet: A New Tool in the War on Gangs

Law enforcement officers are armed with laptops and cellular phones as they hit the streets in their fight against gang-related crime.

A gunshot. Blood. The clatter as a metal rack of magazines tumbles to the floor, tipped over by the weight of a night clerk slumping to the cold linoleum.

There is a witness from across the street who will call 911. The clerk will survive -- his body, if not his psyche, is repairable.

The witness' view was brief. He only got a glimpse as they ran across the well-lit parking lot to their waiting car, but he picked up a few particulars: "They looked like gang-bangers. There were two of them, both male, big guys, about six feet. One had a tattoo on his upper arm. I noticed it because it was huge; it looked like a dragon. They squealed their tires when they left; it was a silver BMW. Nice car. Gold rims. I only saw part of the plate number; there was a 3 and a G -- the first two spots on the plate."

The victim gives up another piece of the puzzle before he is raced away by the paramedics: "The shooter had the tattoo and he stutters."

Was it enough? Sometimes yes. In the past, days could go by before the description turned something up, and by then the suspects could be in hiding or on their way to another town. Three days later, the witness could maybe pick out the suspects' mug shots, and maybe the cops would find them before they struck again.

Maybe. Maybe not.

But starting now, at least in California, the maybes will decrease.

Last fall, the State of California Dept. of Justice (DOJ) began installing CALGANG (Outside of California, the software is called GangNet) -- a cutting-edge, intranet-linked software package developed by Orion Scientific Systems Inc. The system is now connected with a master node in the Dept. of Justice's Sacramento office and linked to nine other sites throughout the state. It is, essentially, a statewide intranet -- a gang-related clearinghouse for information, which is often the most powerful tool a law enforcement officer can have. Orion Scientific, and interested agencies across the country, hope the information link-up will soon cross state lines, reaching deep into the thousands of communities now under siege by gang-related crime.

"We have been working on getting a statewide system for tracking gang affiliations and information for about three and a half years, but it wasn't until a little over a year ago that the technology for open systems architecture made CALGANG possible," said Don Mace, attorney general investigator in charge with DOJ. Mace is the project administrator for CALGANG and has worked with Orion in developing a conversion program to transfer information from CALGANG's predecessor, the GREAT system, into the new database. "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.

"Almost as important is the cost savings it allows. I can put 80 end-users on it for what it cost me to put up one under the GREAT system," Mace continued, "and the entire implementation has only cost $800,000. If we had went with a large-scale hardware provider to develop a custom system, the price tag would have been closer to $2.5 million. And it's simple to use; all the officer requires to access the system is a Netscape browser."

In The Field

GangNet is a specific application that utilizes a relational database to access and categorize information that is regularly collected on gang members, their crimes and their affiliations. It provides a way for officers to utilize that information by allowing them to track, analyze and retrieve data collected about gangs, individual gang members, the places they hang out or live, known associates and even the cars they drive. GangNet puts all this fragmented information -- once crammed into paper file folders and onto isolated computer databases -- together, allowing an investigating officer to quickly draw links between disparate information. The system has been developed so that it can be accessed quickly from an agency's offices or through a laptop in the field.

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."

GangNet Needy

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.

Members Only

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 criminals. Still, where it has received the most attention is in combating the violence of street gangs, like the Los Angeles-based Crips and Bloods.

"While law enforcement can be very territorial at times, there has always been a tendency to share information when it is related to violent crime, and that is what GangNet is all about. It provides a useful way for cities, counties and states -- even different agencies -- to share the gang-related information they collect," said Gates. "We know that gang members are incredibly mobile and they use that mobility to get away with crimes. They even send out hit teams -- under financial contracts with other sets around the country -- to fly in, make a kill and fly out. They call them hunters. Obviously, GangNet won't solve these crimes, but it will make it harder for the killers to get away with them. We have a tremendous gang problem and GangNet is one more tool to help bring it under control," said Gates.

Ray Dussault is a Sacramento, Calif.-based writer.

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