What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

By Madeleine Roe

Gangs in a community are a big problem for public safety agencies. Unlike many other criminals, gang members tend to be both exceptionally organized and highly violent, making them a particularly dangerous force that many agencies have to face daily.

According to the FBI’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, there are approximately 1.4 million active gang members in the United States and more than 33,000 gangs. The study reports that on average, gangs are responsible for 48% of the violent crime in communities. In some areas, they cause up to 90% of violent crime. For public safety agencies, catching these criminals is a growing challenge. Fortunately, agencies have a powerful tool to help them with investigations, track gang members and keep their personnel safe: technology.

At Headquarters
When it comes to tracking gang members, a highly searchable records management system (RMS) is key. Many of today’s RMS platforms enable agencies to store records on suspects, criminals, witnesses, crimes, evidence and victim information. Collecting this data allows agencies to access the crime details they need to conduct thorough and accurate investigations.

Beyond collecting basic information, RMS can provide agencies with a place to store critical details that can assist in gang investigations, such as distinguishing marks, photos, aliases and associations with gangs or other individuals. Agencies can even flag a gang member’s record to alert officers that the individual has, for example, been arrested for assault on an officer or concealed weapon charges, which could indicate they may be armed and dangerous if approached.

Physical details are especially important when trying to track gang members, says Bill Siems, a commander at a police department in northeast Illinois.1 His jurisdiction faces a significant gang problem and is currently monitoring 18 active gangs. The agency’s tactical unit spends about 90% of its time combatting gangs and gang-related crimes, and Siems estimates that patrol officers spend 40–50% of their time dealing with gangs as well.

His agency relies on its software system to track detailed physical characteristics to help them identify gang members.

“We’ll use anything extra that can be put in the system,” says Siems. “Alias information, scars and tattoos can all help.”    

When they’re trying to identify a suspect, Siems’ officers often start by searching their software system for specific physical traits. For example, they can search for white males between 6'–6' 4″, with brown eyes. If there are distinguishing marks that a witness can remember, that information can be included in the search.

“If the suspect has a tattoo of a cross on his left arm, we’ll include that in the search,” Siems says. “If any search results come back, we can look for pictures attached to that record. If it is the guy we are looking for, we can prove it like that. Then we can know that, yeah, this guy is for real.”

Aliases create another set of challenges for agencies tracking the activities of gang members. Gang members often use aliases to confuse law enforcement and hide their true identities. Advanced RMS platforms, like the one Siems’ department uses, give agencies the ability to track aliases by associating that information with the main record for that individual. During investigations, searching for that alias in the database will return the complete name record, which can hinder the gang’s ability to obscure their true identities to delay investigations.

Recent advances to public safety technology also allow agencies to see a comprehensive view of gang activity by illustrating relationships between gang members, incidents, vehicles and more. Siems’ department accomplishes this by using Spillman’s Visual Involvements feature.

By creating a record for each known gang and gang member, then associating the records together using Visual Involvements, the agency gains a comprehensive picture of that gang and its influence. This tool can help inspire leads during investigations.

“When I go to Involvements, I can pull up the Latin Kings record, which brings up all of that gang’s members,” says Siems. “They show up in a cloud around the name of the gang. What’s great is that it also shows links for incidents with other gang members, and that connection might not be something we would have initially searched.”

By exploring related records in the system, his team can see if gang members have committed crimes, if they have had altercations with rival gangs, and whether they’re linked by common vehicles or evidence. These connections can be further analyzed to determine new leads in an investigation.

In the Field
Empowering officers with instant access to agency records, associations, maps, images and more in the field with mobile software gives them an advantage when dealing with gangs and tracking gang members. It improves efficiency by eliminating the need to return to the office to research records and increase officer safety. By accessing records in the field, officers can view warnings connected to a person’s record, helping to alert them to a potentially dangerous situation.

Field personnel can use mobile software to search their local database, state databases and those of other connected agencies for information, all from a laptop in a patrol car.

Siems notes that all of his police officers can access gang information from the field using mobile software as described above. Name records provide his officers with available historic information on someone, including arrest records and associations with other crimes and other criminals, giving them a comprehensive idea of what a suspect may be capable of.

“It does a good job of warning officers of potentially dangerous situations,” says Siems.

In addition to equipping patrol cars with laptops, agencies are arming their personnel with smartphones and tablets to help them access critical information on the go. Siems’ officers use a product for smartphones and iPads to access name records, images and mug shots, which helps them to positively identify someone in the field. Alerts on the records can help field personnel identify situations where they need to use extra caution. Field officers can pull up information anywhere, including when they are on bicycle patrol or on the street talking to suspected gang members. The application provides officers with many of the same functions that they would have when working from a mobile laptop or a desktop computer.

In Custody
Chris Sharp, objective classification corporal of  Washington’s Chelan County Regional Justice Center, says that in his facility, keeping members of rival gangs separate is vital to keeping the peace. When rival gang members come in contact with one another in a jail facility, violence often follows. This can put other inmates and jail personnel in danger, and the resulting medical costs and reporting requirements can have a big impact on a correctional facility’s budget.

“Some of the dangers [when rival gang members meet] include simple assault all the way to a felony assault or worse,” says Sharp. “That costs the jail in medical, cleaning and time for reports to be filled out. The impact of an attack can be far-reaching.”

At one point, Sharp says about 80 of the 383 beds in the Chelan County Regional Justice Center were occupied by known gang members. This meant that jail personnel had to pay careful attention to where they housed 20% of inmates. Consider also that a center may potentially hold friends and family of known gang members and the web of gang associations in Chelan County’s jail gets even more complicated.

Chelan County uses jail records management software to help prevent gang violence after members have been taken into custody. Software has a “keep separate” feature, which allows personnel to flag the records of known gang members and prevent them from being moved or housed with rival gang members. This added security feature helps curb violence at the center.

“It’s a really useful tool for us because we can identify right in the names screen which gang they belong to and who they can’t be housed with,” says Sharp. “It’s very vital that they be kept separate.”

In Conclusion
RMS platforms can now provide agencies a comprehensive view of gangs, gang activities and associations. Agencies can use these systems to give personnel the information they need to stay safe, whether they are in the field, or managing gang members in custody. Agencies can also use information to prevent gangs from delaying and confusing investigations. Ultimately, these advanced tools can help agencies make informed decisions when dealing with gangs and take steps to reduce gang-related activity.

Madeleine Roe is the marketing writer at Spillman Technologies. She can be contacted at mroe@spillman.com.

1. Siems agency can’t be named according to department regulations.