By Devin Simmons
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday October 23, 2002
A computer database designed on campus may be just what investigators need to catch the Washington, D.C., area sniper, said Lt. Jenny Schroeder of the Tucson Police Department.
The database, called COPLINK, was designed by Hsinchun Chen and his staff in the Artificial Intelligence Lab, part of the UA's Department of Management Information Systems.
COPLINK is a Web-based database allowing any police department connected to the system to access information from other police departments at the click of a button, Chen said.
The Tucson Police Department will be sending Schroeder and Detective Tim Petersen to the Washington, D.C., area today, on the request of the Montgomery County Police Department, to install the program and help train local authorities, according to information from TPD.
In the three years TPD has had COPLINK, police officers have given it rave reviews. The database has several features that may make it an important part of the sniper investigation.
"With COPLINK, when we have little to no information we can take that information and try to establish connections, which actually creates leads for us that were not there before," Schroeder said.
Most importantly, the program enables departments to share information with each other in a much more efficient way, to expedite investigations and hopefully prevent violent crimes from ever happening, Chen said.
The idea behind the program operates on the premise many criminals are repeat offenders, Schroeder said. Those people have already had police contact and most likely are mentioned in past police reports.
A user can plug in a few key phrases from a current case, such as physical description, license plate number, weapons or whatever else they might know, and the system will do a search of every department database looking for matching information.
COPLINK works like "a Google site for law enforcement," Chen said.
UAPD Cmdr. Sam Ragland praises the effectiveness of the system, which the UAPD has been using for over a year.
The next step for the UAPD is to get COPLINK installed in all of the department's patrol cars, said Ragland. He said the software is there but they are waiting on funding to get the hardware needed in the patrol cars to make it work.
The department wants to set up antennas at different points on campus, Ragland said. The antennas will send signals to the wireless modems inside computers that are in the patrol cars.
Currently, all detectives in the department have COPLINK on their desktop computers and can access it with a special encrypted ID, said Ragland.
Chen got the idea for the database back in 1997.
That year, Chen and Brad Cochran, a 25-year Tucson police veteran, discussed ways that the communication between departments and the management of information could be improved. They came up with the idea for COPLINK and then went on to present it to Lt. Schroeder at TPD.
Chen then pitched the concept to the National Institute for Justice, which is a division of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., he said. The NIJ funded the initial stages of the experiment and founded UA's Artificial Intelligence Lab.
The project has since received grants from the NIJ and the National Science Association.
Interest in the database has grown all over the country, Chen said, and he has since developed a company to begin distributing COPLINK.
Schroeder said that TPD has received several calls from agencies all over the country asking their opinion on the system's effectiveness and has sent representatives to different departments to help train them and install the program.
She cited a specific instance when the program was being installed in the Polk County Police Department in Iowa. During the setup and training, the department actually solved three cases that it had previously given up on.
"We get calls from agencies and departments all the time, praising COPLINK," Schroeder said. "Our own detectives have really embraced the system. I know we have caught a lot of bad guys just by using COPLINK."
The system is not all that expensive to install, Schroeder said, estimating that a department could install the program for less than $40,000 and that the whole of southern Arizona could be connected for roughly $200,000.
Currently, only TPD and the UAPD are using the system in southern Arizona, though a project is in the works to integrate the whole region.
Schroeder cited the case of serial rapist James Allen Selby, who was arrested in connection with crimes that threatened the university community last semester, as one in which the system might have come in handy.
"In the case of Selby, we had an individual who was committing crimes in a number of different jurisdictions," Schroeder said. "If we had had COPLINK in place in all of those jurisdictions, we might have been able to catch him sooner."
Schroeder said there are also plans to connect the system with a COPLINK system being installed by the Phoenix Police Department.