Two years ago, a Phoenix homicide detective asked for help on a case.
Someone had been killed, but police had few clues. "Look for two brothers and a mother whose first name is all we know,” the homicide detective said.
So planning and research Detective Ben Vermillion keyed the information into a special program that pools and searches police department databases.
“Within 15 minutes, I had the shooter for his homicide,” Vermillion said. “They were listed in some departmental reports and ... (the program) links them together.”
Vermillion says he couldn’t have done that so quickly without a tool called COPLINK. Named for it’s ability to link cops with one another, the program links and compares databases within agencies and shares the information with others to help solve crimes.
“What COPLINK led us to do is take an impossible situation where we have 3 million records and narrow it down to a few departmental reports,” Vermillion said.
The Mesa police plan to begin using COPLINK this fall and Scottsdale, Tempe, Chandler and Gilbert are scheduled to join shortly afterward.
Mesa approved the nearly $500,000 program April 16. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office already has the program, as do the Phoenix and Tucson police departments.
In Phoenix, detectives used COPLINK to catch the a.m. Rapist and in Washington, D.C., officials used the program in the hunt for the D.C. Sniper. Vermillion said he uses the tool nearly every day to hunt down other serial offenders.
Scottsdale police systems administrator Mike Morrison said COPLINK will help everyone, since criminals can commit a crime in two different cities and live in a third city, making information-gathering slow and time-consuming.
“It’s just a good search engine that allows us to (share) those sorts of things,” Morrison said.
Tucson police were the first agency in the country to use COPLINK and conducted a handful of studies into it’s time-saving benefits, said information services division administrator Jim Wysocki. The department found that COPLINK was equivalent to 100 sworn officers or detectives. In fact, Wysocki said the study’s findings were so astounding, that officials conducted another to verify its accuracy.
“To me, I’m thrilled when I get a 15 percent return,” Wysocki said, “but to get 1,000 percent return is astounding to us.”
The prototype of COPLINK was created by Hsinchun Chen, director of the University of Arizona’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and turned into a commercial product by Knowledge Computing Corp. of Tucson, which produces the software, said Bob Griffin, chief executive officer of the company.
“In law enforcement, there are operational systems, databases (and) each of them don’t communicate with each other,” Griffin said. “We believe you can take that information and bring it into the COPLINK environment, find all the like objects, put them together and have a tactical tool for finding the bad guys.”
Griffin said the more databases that are linked to the program, the more powerful the tool will be.
The first commercial license for COPLINK was sold to Tucson police in 2002, Griffin said.
Since COPLINK uses records that already exist, there hasn’t been too much criticism of the program. However, some worry that a hacker could gain access to the information or police officers could misuse the information.
“I think it’s undeniable that the larger a system gets, the more vulnerable it becomes,” said James Dempsey, policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology headquartered in Washington, D.C.
“It would be appropriate for COPLINK to have a system where not every user has access to every database,” he said.
Dempsey said that law enforcement agencies have always communicated with one another and that it would be “foolish not to use technology to enhance modern communication.”
However, he said it’s important that users of the system are well-trained and that there is good management over who accesses the system.