Despite its depiction in Hollywood, police work is often a startlingly low-tech enterprise. Futuristic laboratories and slick computer interfaces are few and far between. Instead, information relevant to the investigation of crimes is often fragmented and confusing, stored in an array of aged software and incomplete databases that can’t communicate with each other.
Tevelyon Jones, a captain with the Oakland Police Department, found that his department collected troves of data on gun crimes — but rarely connected the dots. Street cops working a murder might have no idea that acoustic sensors picked up gunshots near the crime scene. Detectives working a string of robberies might miss reports of similar crimes happening in a neighboring jurisdiction. Jones, who did stints in Oakland’s homicide and gang units, said that when pursuing a case, “you had to hope that you talked to somebody that knew a thing or two about what you were researching.”
Luckily for Oakland police, just a few miles away in Silicon Valley, a group of entrepreneurs and former law enforcement officials were working on a digital portal designed to streamline the collection and analysis of police data. Released in 2012, the “Law Enforcement Analysis Portal,” or LEAP, is software that scoops up troves of unfiltered law enforcement data — from arrest notes, to gun trace reports, to license plate scans — and then collates and analyzes it. The data lives in a centralized, searchable repository, accessible to thousands of law enforcement agencies. Forensic Logic, the company behind LEAP, calls the technology the “Google for crime.”
“There are 18,000 different law enforcement agencies in America, and a lot of them do a poor job of communicating with each other,” said Brad Davis, Forensic Logic’s CEO.
While Davis and his colleagues were still designing LEAP in the late 2010s, the crime situation in nearby Oakland was worsening. In 2011, the city recorded 110 homicides, the most in five years. And the killings increased, the Police Department’s clearance rate — or success at solving crimes — plummeted.
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The following year, in 2012, the city rolled out Oakland Ceasefire, an anti-violence program that employs outreach workers to defuse conflicts before they escalate. And the Police Department pledged to get smarter, focusing its investigative efforts on the small group of individuals most responsible for committing crimes. On paper, a more strategic and data-driven department sounded like a great idea. But there was one big problem: The Oakland Police Department was an informational black hole.
It was for this reason that the city was an ideal test of the new technology’s abilities. As LEAP’s first major customer, the Oakland Police Department worked with Forensic Logic to fine-tune the software to process firearms-related data. To expedite the flow of information on gun crimes, LEAP pulled data from a variety of sources, including ShotSpotter, the acoustic network that pings gunshots across the city, and NIBIN, the federal system for linking spent shell casings to crime scenes. It also automatically sent all guns in evidence to the National Tracing Center, where authorities track the many hands a firearm travels through before it ends up in a crime. Officers on the street could then use this information in their day-to-day policing — because they could instantly pull up information about crime guns or suspects in gun-related crimes.
LEAP quickly became a cornerstone of Oakland’s policing strategy. By 2017, Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick declared at a City Council meeting that her officers were querying the portal on average 70,000 times a month. When the Police Department started using the software in 2012 shootings numbered 553. Six years later, that number was 277. While Oakland’s reduction in gun violence has been attributed to several complex factors, officers believe that Forensic Logic was a key player in the equation. “It’s undoubtedly saved lives,” said Jones, the Oakland police captain. “[Other agencies] got more cops than we do, more money than we do, and they are coming to us to try and figure out how we did it.”
The use of big data by police is not an entirely new concept. Other cities — including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago — have turned to private technology companies to collect and analyze data that informs their policing strategies.
It’s a practice that’s also elicited criticism. Andrew Ferguson is a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, and the author of a book on big-data policing. He says that the information added to police data portals, and the algorithms that process it, are prone to factual holes and racial bias. “There’s a lot of bad data that gets put in these systems,” he said. “You know the dangers of bad search engines. We shouldn’t blindly trust a search engine that claims it can be the Google for police data.”
LEAP’s role in helping the Oakland Police Department reduce gun crime earned the company at least a few new customers. Forensic Logic says the technology is accessible to 5,100 law enforcement agencies in the United States.
In Alameda County, the District Attorney’s Office purchased a subscription to LEAP to glean more information about guns recovered at crime scenes, particularly those that had been stolen.
Nancy O’Malley, the district attorney, described the process of identifying a stolen gun prior to LEAP as “looking for a needle in a haystack.” She recalled a 2008 case that involved a man who robbed a gas station at gunpoint. When the clerk called 911, the gunman opened fire. He missed his intended target, but bullets crashed through the gas station and into a nearby music school, hitting a 10-year-old boy and leaving him partially paralyzed. Police didn’t make the connection that the night before the gun used was stolen, simply because the report was stashed away on someone else’s desk just feet away.“Even in the police department it wasn’t linked,” said O’Malley.
Now, using LEAP, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office is able to bridge those data gaps, and spot patterns. O’Malley’s office found that in 2012, the number of shootings coincided with an increase in stolen weapons. The finding prompted the district attorney to call for stricter enforcement of laws penalizing gun owners who leave their weapons unattended. “It’s one thing to know about all of this, but what are going to do with it? And that’s why the data is so important,” O’Malley said.
Since rolling the system out in the Bay Area, the newly networked array of law enforcement agencies have used LEAP to try and punch down crime.
“In the past to do the same investigations it would take you two to three weeks,” said Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a post-9/11 fusion center that works as a hub for law enforcement info sharing. Sena says Forensic Logic’s data has been used in everything from terrorism cases to gun runners, noting that, “With the tools you can pull everything together in hours.”
Clarification: Following publication, Forensic Logic revised a statement made by one of its executives of the number of agencies that have access to LEAP.