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Catching Crooks Goes High Tech : Computer cops have become so effective against career criminals that Carson is helping the Sheriff's Department pay for them after a $215,385 federal grant ran out.

December 18, 1987|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

In a quiet back room at the Carson sheriff's station, Dawn Weber and Garth Wasson sit all day in front of computer terminals going over police interviews, files, arrest records and complaints.

This desk work--not the "Robocop" movie fantasy, not TV's "Airwolf"--is "the cutting edge" of police work these days, according to Lt. Steve Switzer, chief of detectives.

Assisted by a sophisticated computer program whimsically named SHURLOC, crime analysts Weber and Wasson--and others like them in Torrance, Hawthorne, Lomita, Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, El Segundo and Gardena--are playing an increasingly important, if unheralded, role in catching South Bay crooks.

The Carson unit is considered so effective that the sheriff's office and the Carson City Council decided to continuing funding it when a $215,385 federal grant ran out earlier this year. The rate of filing cases against so-called "career criminals" more than tripled after the unit began operating in 1985.

Among other things, Weber and Wasson--who are civilian employees of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department--dig up the criminal backgrounds of defendants that may prompt a judge to impose a harsher penalty after a conviction. They use a computerized graphics system to plot crimes on maps so that police can see where resources should be used. They link suspects to crimes through the SHURLOC search program.

Same as the CIA

"They are the same as the analysts at the CIA. They take all these little facts and figures and put them together," Switzer said.

Carson sheriff's detectives and patrol officers produce 2,000 to 3,000 reports a year from arrests, investigations, interviews. But until the crime analysis unit began operating, this mass of data--criminals' names, nicknames, cars, addresses, phone numbers and friends--was not used effectively.

Most of the time, according to Sgt. Jim Vandepas, who is in charge of the crime analysis unit, "it went nowhere."

There are now more than 10,000 reports in the Carson sheriff's data base, and Weber and Wasson have become the experts at teasing leads from it.

"We're not doing anything different than detectives have done for years. We have just automated it," said Vandepas, adding that some suspects would have been difficult, if not impossible to catch without Weber and Wasson.

Case of The Pink Pickup

About a year ago, a group driving past San Pedro High School opened fire.

Los Angeles police were stumped. All they had to go on was that the boys were in a pink Datsun pickup truck. They came to the Carson crime analysis unit.

"We hear you have this computer," a detective said to Wasson.

Wasson turned on the SHURLOC program and tapped in the codes for pink Datsun pickups. "We had just one hit. Everything matched," he said. The computer identified the owner. A few more keystrokes, and it kicked out a list of his friends. The police went out to the addresses listed by the machine.

"Sure enough, it was them," Wasson said.

The Joker

A juvenile with an unusual first name played a practical joke on another boy, placing a firecracker in his back pocket. When it exploded, the victim suffered serious burns on a thigh and, because his pants caught fire, additional severe burns on his shins.

Police had only the first name and a description of the joker. The crime unit pumped these through the system and found someone with the same name who fit the description. He lived several blocks from the victim. He happened to be in the computer because he had been questioned twice for truancy.

"He looked like a real good suspect," said Vandepas, adding that police "had him come down and he admitted to the crime."

Scottsdale Car Capers

Last June, the Scottsdale housing tract in south Carson was plagued by a rash of car burglaries, 15 of them in three weeks.

The crime analysis unit sifted through the complaints and detected a pattern. Five that occurred at the beginning of the week were reported during the morning near 236th Street and Banning Boulevard. The burglars broke in through windows.

With that information, two deputies in an unmarked car began surveillance June 24. On the first shift, they caught two suspects breaking into a car.

There were no car burglaries in the area for two weeks after that.

Career Crisis for Burglar

In April, 1986, Randy Young, a 21-year-old parolee, was arrested for a series of burglaries that had been linked by the computer because of their particular style.

Vandepas said that Young pleaded guilty to nine burglaries and was sentenced three months later.

"He is now doing six years," Vandepas said, adding that he is convinced that the rate of cases filed against career criminals by the Carson station has jumped because of the crime analysis unit.

Although the precise definition of career criminal is a lengthy technical statement, in general it is applied to defendants who are either accused of a string of crimes or have history of convictions.

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