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Police Hope Software Can Help Avoid 'Losing' Sex Offenders

Continually improving information sharing, mapping and content management systems have allowed law enforcement agencies across the country to keep better watch of some of society's most dangerous criminals.

Accurate and current data on violent sex offenders is crucial for law enforcement agencies, but it hasn’t always been easy to maintain.

State laws require sex offenders to annually register with local authorities, making their name, addresses and other identifying information publicly available. However, lax enforcement of offender registration, often occurring in overworked and understaffed departments, can frequently lead to oversights.

An audit in Missouri last year, for instance, found that authorities had lost track of some 1,300 sex offenders. Audits in numerous other states like California, Michigan and Massachusetts have found similar lapses, with thousands of offenders sometimes going unaccounted for.

However, advances in content management, mapping and information sharing are allowing some police departments to move past these bureaucratic stumbling blocks.

One company helping in this area is OffenderWatch, an offender registry management tool whose unique business model allows police to collate information on offenders in one centralized record.

Mike Cormaci, president of OffenderWatch, fell upon the idea some two decades ago, when the concept of law enforcement using the Internet to solve crimes seemed to many like a far-fetched idea.

"Back then nobody thought the Internet was going to be that big," he said.

As he went about attempting to sell software to sheriff's departments in the early Internet days, Cormaci initially encountered a lot of disinterest, he said. 

Eventually, of course, police got wise to the utility the Web could serve. Now Cormaci has taken that far-fetched idea and grown it into a company that services over 3,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, has 17 statewide contracts and holds profiles on more than half a million offenders.  

OffenderWatch has been especially helpful for agencies in larger cities, where multiple jurisdictions or departments require smooth communication and transfer of information. 

A good example is Baltimore, where the local police department typically receives close to 400 sex crime cases per year and is responsible for the largest sex offender registry in Maryland — including some 1,400 registered offenders. 

Maj. Steven Hohman, commander of the city’s Special Investigations Section, said that of Baltimore's registered offenders around 150 to 200 will violate the terms of their registration at some point throughout the year — making proper surveillance of them critical. OffenderWatch, Hohman said, has helped his city immensely in its investigations and registry enforcement. 

Before OffenderWatch, information sharing between different police departments could be a cumbersome task. Police from different jurisdictions would have to call each other or physically meet to “compare notes,” Hohman said. Now, with the software, police need only type keywords into the OffenderWatch system and all documented offender information can be sent to their fingertips. 

Previously, agencies were all responsible for creating their own registries and offender profiles. With multiple profiles and often slower, less direct information sharing, the chances of oversights or miscommunication between jurisdictions were always higher.

With OffenderWatch, a single, shareable record is created that centralizes all known information about the offender — including photos, fingerprints, listed residence and vehicle make, any case notes from criminal investigations involving them and other details. When an offender moves to a new address, the record is transferred from one jurisdiction to another through the company's system. All record changes are based on the address, which facilitates agency assignment, Cormaci said. 

For large cities like Baltimore, the use of one unifying system to collate, track and update data on offenders can be hugely effective.

“It’s just a much more efficient and seamless sharing of the information,” said Hohman. “To us, the ability to get information in real time is huge.”   

Also critical for police is the company’s mapping capabilities — a kind of Google Maps for offenders. This software can be a very effective tool during investigations, said Hohman, as it gives officials quick information on offenders who may live within close proximity to a recent crime.    

Cormaci, who said his company is always looking to innovate, has sought to invest in new and emerging tech trends to enhance law enforcement capabilities moving into the future. 

As an example, the Baltimore Police Department recently helped pilot a predictive analytics program developed by OffenderWatch called FOCUS. The program uses offender information to analyze risk factors in their personality, thus helping police make better judgments on who deserves careful watching. FOCUS is now a major feature for police departments across the country.   

As OffenderWatch has grown, the company has been able to secure larger and larger contracts. In the coming months, Maryland will join the more than a dozen states that hold statewide contracts with the company, replacing its current state registry with OffenderWatch and transferring data from their older systems into the company's system, according to an associated contract. The first phase of the project is slated to be complete by June, said a company representative.  

In the future, Cormaci says he hopes to continue to expand his company's reach and service. "We're constantly innovating," he said.

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.