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Computers Help Police Take a Megabyte Out of Crime

Technology: Agencies across the county are relying more and more on analysts, who will meet for the first time next week to coordinate their work.

July 13, 1997|SCOTT HADLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hunched over a computer in the belly of the Oxnard police station, Jane Le Mond crunches numbers and sorts through data in a cramped office that is permeated with the smell of coffee brewing 24 hours a day.

Fielding queries from cops on the beat and detectives with riddles for cases, Le Mond sorts through the tea leaves that are police databases and helps find answers--a heavy cluster of car thefts during the early morning hours along Oxnard Boulevard, home break-ins with uncanny similarities, a short list of known thieves with a certain kind of tattoo on their necks.

Le Mond's seemingly mundane job is actually part of the forefront of police work.

Her work not only helps detectives with major cases, it also helps officers on patrol.

Increasingly in Ventura County, law enforcement agencies are turning to crime analysts with computer expertise and advanced training, like Le Mond, for answers.

But local crime analysts want to take the modernization a step forward, coordinating data from agency to agency and eventually setting up countywide databases to track crime.

Next week, crime analysts from the Ventura County Sheriff's Department as well as the Oxnard, Ventura, Port Hueneme and Simi Valley police departments will meet for the first time to coordinate their work.

Instead of spending weeks going through file cards or hours pushing pins into maps, analysts can obtain information in seconds with a click of the keyboard.

With speed and accuracy, new computer databases and mapping software--with names like "InfoCop" and "CopView"--can pinpoint where and when crimes have occurred.

The data can also be manipulated to shake out information that shows specific crime patterns. Computers can link a criminal to his or her criminal behavior--all the burglaries in which the perpetrator used a "doggy door" to gain entrance to a home, for instance, or all the "hot-prowl" burglaries in which the perpetrator breaks in when someone is home.

Essentially, it is work that has always been done by detectives and police officers--but by hand. The difference now is technology.

Crime analysis units were started by many departments nearly 20 years ago.

Instead of having to search through thousands of index cards or push pins into maps to review every crime in a given area, analysts can retrieve information and manipulate it with the click of a computer mouse. And the information is current, as police reports are now entered into computers within 24 hours.

By using statistical analysis of past incidents, agencies can even predict the probability of certain types of crimes occurring at certain times of the day in a certain place.

Thieves involved in a spate of "smash burglaries" in Thousand Oaks--during which windows were broken and valuables snatched--were nabbed with the help of Sheriff's Department crime analyst Dana Trottier. Noting what kinds of businesses were hit, when they were robbed and where, she was able to make suggestions about deploying the surveillance teams that eventually busted the thieves.

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With computers, this kind of crime forecast can be provided to officers daily.

The potential is immense, yet agencies in Ventura County still have a long way to go to tap into the full potential of computers, officials said.

Departments already have access to several statewide and federal databases that track parolees, sex offenders, drug offenders and gang members, but a countywide database to track local criminal activity is still a long way off, according to officials.

And although all departments maintain extensive computer databases, concerns about costs or the possibility of purchasing an inadequate system have caused some to simply wait before buying more sophisticated computers and software systems.

While every law enforcement agency in the county has computers and access to computer databases, some have watched as other California police agencies have set up more powerful computer mapping systems, computer reporting systems and databases to analyze criminal activity.

In San Diego, residents can tap into the Police Department's Internet site and learn how many people were assaulted in their neighborhood, or how many cars were stolen or homes burglarized.

On the forefront of computer mapping technology and using computer databases to monitor criminal activity, the San Diego department's Crime Analysis Unit has long provided such information to officers, but starting late last year it offered the information to the public.

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In the late 1970s, law enforcement agencies in all of San Diego County set up a countywide crime database that includes arrest records, traffic accidents, crime reports and a list of stolen property compiled by that county's 29 agencies.

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