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A police dept.'s community-affairs managers tells readers how high tech is helping them solve crimes.
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Crime plummeted when the Oxnard Police Department added telemarketing computers and a gang-busting database to its arsenal

Scott Swenson and Gary Lumas are sitting in their neighborhood cop shop, in Oxnard, Calif. Swenson's a tall blond, a 17-year veteran of the Oxnard Police Department. Lumas, considerably shorter, has 16 years with the force. They're talking about gangs and the last murder on their beat.

It was in the springtime, in the evening, says Lumas, a gang shooting in the alley behind a strip mall. "The only person shot was an innocent bystander. He died at the hospital shortly after he got there."

The Oxnard PD broke the case with the help of a witness who worked in a neighborhood grocery store and who had caught some of the gang members on videotape the day before the shooting. Witnesses and neighborhood residents knew the kids only by their street names -- their monikers. But Oxnard PD has GO/TRAK (short for "gang-offender tracking"), a database of information on Oxnard's 50 or so gangs. GO/TRAK can tell you anything you want to know about gang members, from the turf they claim as home to distinctive physical characteristics and tattoos.

Oxnard is the least affluent city in affluent Ventura County, a place where the stolen car of choice is not a Mercedes or a BMW but a Chevy Impala or an old Buick. It has a population of 154,000, mostly blue-collar and agricultural workers. In the late 1980s, cities like Oxnard were in danger of becoming small-scale urban nightmares, their relative serenity disturbed by spreading violence, drugs, and street gangs. And Oxnard seemed ripe for the picking: a 1991 survey revealed that of 139 cities in the United States with populations of more than 100,000, Oxnard ranked dead last in the number of police officers per 1,000 residents. Today, more than 3,000 of Oxnard's youths are associated with criminal street gangs, gangs with names like Colonia and the Southside Chicques.

Oxnard not only weathered its gang problems; it managed to lower its crime rate below that of the early 1960s. And its police department has earned rave reviews from law-enforcement officials for its innovative use of technology -- from telemarketing computers and a weekly cable TV show to one of the most advanced gang-tracking computer databases in the nation.

* * *

Walk into police headquarters, and you're greeted on the second floor by community-affairs manager David Keith. Dressed in a crisply pressed button-down shirt and a tie, he looks vaguely like the business student he once was. Keith, who admits to being on the verge of technological illiteracy, is the driving force behind many of the innovations instituted by the Oxnard PD. "I'm almost embarrassed to tell you what is technologically advanced in police work," he says. "We just got this ingenious thing called voice mail, for instance, which you've probably heard of."

Yet it was Keith who inaugurated Oxnard's high-tech revolution in 1989, when he purchased a washer and dryer from Sears and later got a call from a computerized voice trying to sell him a maintenance agreement. "I hung up," he says. But it got him thinking. "I thought maybe we could use something like that to notify neighborhoods about crime problems."

So Keith talked to the chief, Bob Owens, and did some research. He found two companies that sold telemarketing computers and decided on TeleMinder, made by Decision Systems, in Los Altos, Calif. The department paid $12,000 for a complete system: a PC with voice-processing boards, an uninterruptable power supply, a printer, a phone, and telemarketing software. The system can be programmed to deliver a prerecorded message to selected residents whose phone numbers are stored in its database. "We didn't spend any tax dollars," Keith says quickly. "We bought it with money seized from drug dealers."

Cut to a neighborhood of lower- middle-class families in southeast Oxnard that was hit by a dozen break-ins in one weekend. "The guy," says Keith, "was getting in the same way -- going in through sliding glass doors -- at the same time of day. And he was stealing only VCRs." So Keith and volunteer assistants programmed the telemarketing computer to call every home in the neighborhood: "This is the Oxnard Police Department with a crime-alert bulletin for your neighborhood." Says Keith, "I don't think people hang up when they hear that." The computerized message described the crime pattern and recommended that residents lock all sliding and garage doors; it also gave phone numbers to call with information about a burglary or for information about starting a neighborhood crime-prevention program.

The number of burglaries in the neighborhood dropped to zero over the next month. And it wasn't only the residents who were alerted. "We strongly suspect the burglar himself got the message," says Keith. The department began to use telemarketing in other neighborhoods, with equally good results.

Another success was Oxnard PD's weekly television show, also Keith's idea. In the 1980s Keith was giving some 250 crime-prevention talks a year to neighborhood groups and Kiwanis clubs. If he could do a television show, he figured, he could save himself 249 lectures a year and reach more people in the process. So the department talked to the local cable company, Jones Intercable, and in August 1985 produced its first weekly show, Street Beat, which discussed ways to combat crime and focused on different neighborhoods.

Since then, three of every four Oxnard neighborhoods have been featured on the show -- in English on Monday and in Spanish on Tuesday. "On average, the crime rate has dropped 55%," says Keith. "And that's with no additional officers, which is the typical police response to increased crime."

* * *

Oxnard PD's most impressive piece of technology -- GO/TRAK -- goes far beyond telemarketing and TV. It grew out of Oxnard's role as a national demonstration site in a program called SHO (for "serious habitual offenders") that the U.S. Department of Justice began in the early 1980s to target juveniles. Although SHO was definitely low-tech ("mostly shuffling paper back and forth," says Keith), it was pathbreaking in the amount of information it compiled on hard-core juvenile criminals and potential habitual offenders. Perhaps most important, it connected all the organizations that deal with youths -- from the schools and the district attorney's office to the police and the courts. So when kids were busted, the authorities knew if they were novices or pros and could make informed decisions about whether or not to let them walk.

SHO ran through the late '80s, and crime in Oxnard plummeted. The murder rate dropped dramatically. But toward the end of the decade, an influx of gangs sent the crime rate skyrocketing, and the Justice Department chose Oxnard to do for gangs what it had done for juveniles. This time, Oxnard used the department's funding to hire computer expert Dan Richards, whose company, Monterey Systems Corp. (then in Santa Barbara, Calif., now in Port St. Lucie, Fla.), produced custom software for what Richards calls "really oddball kinds of things, things you can't buy off the shelf."

Richards spent months hanging out in Oxnard, talking to street cops, going on night patrols, even participating in searches and busts. He took four months to write the GO/TRAK prototype, while Oxnard PD's GO/TRAK Committee, made up of street cops, gave him continual feedback. Or, as Keith puts it, "they would just rip the hell out of it." The cops wanted to be able to give GO/TRAK partial information -- for example, a partial description of a vehicle or a partial description of a suspect -- to narrow down a search. Today, GO/TRAK can work with various combinations of data, a feature that, according to Richards, is its greatest strength.

The information fed into GO/TRAK comes from every available source: state, county, school, and prison records; informants; and officer field-interview cards, which street cops fill out whenever they learn or observe anything that might be of interest later.

Indeed, GO/TRAK, as demonstrated by the department's gang case manager Cheryl Garcia, who oversees the database, can provide a mind-numbing array of information about Oxnard's gang members -- from date of birth, height and weight, and distinguishing scars, to nicknames, drug habits, weapons' history, and any vehicles a kid has owned, been stopped in, been ticketed in, stolen, or even been seen in, complete with plate numbers and even partial plates. It can provide school records, employment histories, and the names of brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles -- and the criminal records of each and every one of them. It can describe every run-in kids have had with the police and the terms and conditions of their latest probation. It can list their known associates -- with addresses -- and their associates' associates.

GO/TRAK also can print out photos -- and pictures of unique tattoos -- or display them on a screen. "We take a young person into custody," says Scott Swenson. "He tells us his name, but it doesn't seem to check; and he gives us a phone number that's not valid. We have to find out who this kid is. Now, he's got a tattoo on his arm. We go to GO/TRAK and check his tattoo. There's a fair chance it's in there, and then we've identified him. We have a photograph that will confirm his tattoo and get us a picture of his pretty face. We find out what his real name is, find out who his parents are. Then we even have an extra charge of lying to the cops."

GO/TRAK can describe each gang's "colors" (or dress), vehicles, hand signals, and graffiti. It knows which gangs are on friendly terms and which are rivals. That gives the cops a lead on where to look for suspects when there's been a shooting. It can tell whether a gang member is a level one -- most violent -- or a level two or three. Level-one kids are constantly watched. The focus on level-two and level-three kids is on keeping them from moving up.

Oxnard keeps a computer terminal in dispatch so that an officer on the street can telephone or radio in and ask for information. The entire database is cross-referenced and can be searched. "If an officer's out on the street and sees a red Cadillac acting suspicious, he'll call in," says Garcia. "We'll look it up and tell him it's a known Colonia car, for instance, and whose it is."

The cops on the beat use GO/TRAK for everything from tracking down probation offenders to cracking murder cases. Take, for example, an attempted murder last February of two brothers, both members of Colonia, Oxnard's biggest gang. Jeff Shelton, one of two detectives whose beat is gangs, says he came on the victims. Both had been shot in the chest, and both were in critical condition. Shelton's partner, Dennis McMaster, found out from witnesses that the shooters were members of the Lemonwood Chicques, who live on Napoleon Avenue. Shelton and McMaster used GO/TRAK to give the witnesses photos of every Lemonwood Chicques gang member on Napoleon. They also ran the photos by the brothers, who had started to pull through. The brothers made a positive identification, and a known Lemonwood Chicques member was arrested and prosecuted.

Though GO/TRAK has helped bring crime in Oxnard down to its lowest level since the late 1960s, the Oxnard PD is not content to rest on its laurels. It's excited about its new subscription to America Online and wants to set up an electronic bulletin board so those involved with a case can read police crime reports without going to the station.

In the past two years, says Keith, he's heard from 500 police departments around the country that have read in the press about Oxnard's success. "One of the first things they say to me," he says, "is 'Well, if we had enough staffing, we could do some of the things you're doing.' I say, 'You don't understand. We don't have enough staffing. That's why we've had to do it. And if we could do it, you can do it.' "

* * *

Gary Taubes (taubes@netcom.com) is a New York-based science and technology writer. His most recent book is Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusio n.

Last updated: Dec 15, 1995




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