It was a robbery that sold Vallejo police lieutenant Todd Tribble. A group of men had taken over a bank in his California city, disarmed the security guard, emptied the drawers of cash and fled in stolen cars. Not long after, they dumped the getaway vehicles and escaped in a different car. All Tribble and the rest of the team had to go on was a license plate.
For the next 48 hours the detectives on the case gathered all the related records their department kept in its three databases, as well as some from nearby Oakland, where the car was registered.
That same week Robert Batty was in the Vallejo Police Department’s offices, presenting the services of Forensic Logic, a company he cofounded and heads that has created the most comprehensive platform of law enforcement data sharing in the country. He plugged the robbers’ plate into the system. “Within a microsecond,” says Tribble, an officer with 17 years of experience, “it came back with all of the contacts that the Oakland Police Department had had with the people related to that license plate. It came up with information we didn’t know about.”
Brad Davis, Forensic Logic’s vice president of business development, remembers that case, too: “One police officer yelled from the back: ‘You bastards, I had a team of people working who could not put together what you just did in 20 seconds.’ ” It’s the kind of response that Batty, Davis and the rest of the 10-year-old, San Francisco-based company’s staff of 12 has often heard as they’ve expanded the reach of their service, the Law Enforcement Analysis Portal (LEAP).
“People think law enforcement is like an episode of CSI,” says Davis. “It’s a lot closer to The Andy Griffith Show. A lot of paper, a lot of phone calls. Hoping that the chief next door doesn’t have a grudge against you, hoping that someone returns your phone call, hoping that the records guy isn’t out on vacation—or just too busy to deal with you.”
There are roughly 18,000 local, county and state law enforcement agencies in the United States, and although a few have multimillion-dollar databases, the great majority of them employ fewer than 50 full-time officers and operate on limited budgets. Some of their systems are as simple as file cabinets or old DOS programs. Regardless, beat officers generally can’t access them except by radio request. Trading records across agencies is even more cumbersome.
The lack of communication isn’t lost on criminals. Shoplifting rings crisscross the country, stealing billions of dollars worth of products in small amounts that pass under the radar. Trafficking rings operate across multiple states. Gangs in different cities make deals to do each others’ shootings, knowing there’s less chance of getting caught when they swoop in and out. In 2010, 35 percent of murders in the United States went unsolved. Batty and Davis think that networking all of the nation’s law enforcement records can help the police keep up.
To build LEAP the company has partnered with federal clients including agencies of the U.S. Department of Justice (among them the FBI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or ATF), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (including immigration and customs enforcement, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service) and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service as well as an increasing number of police departments. Forensic Logic ties into each system, then extracts its data digitally or by scanning paper documents in a process that makes them searchable. Stored remotely, the information is available to any law enforcement officer with an Internet connection, which means cash-strapped departments don’t need to buy or maintain expensive hardware to access it. Forensic Logic charges local police departments a nominal amount. Contracts with federal agencies provide the bulk of the company’s revenues.
Recently Forensic Logic began working with private customers, providing anonymous data to insurance companies eager to understand crime patterns. An above-average number of stolen cars, for example, could point to nearby chop shops and tell companies where to put surveillance cameras and private investigators. Forensic Logic is also working on a national platform for nonprofits fighting sex trafficking. Each government agency that subscribes adds to database depth, and built-in analysis tools help investigators understand the results.
Several federal clearinghouses do make information such as DMV records and outstanding warrants available throughout the country but, thanks in large part to the federal government’s drawn-out procurement processes, they’re short of data and technologically outdated. As to why there’s a need for the services provided by Forensic Logic, one need only look at failed programs such as the FBI’s case management system known as Virtual Case File (VCF). After five years in development and almost $170 million spent, VCF was abandoned in 2005 because of inadequate software. In 2012 a Department of Justice report noted that the more than $450-million budget for Sentinel, a replacement program launched in 2011, was inadequate to keep it running. Although it has the capacity to collect the nation’s law enforcement data, the extent to which it will be used is uncertain. Forensic Logic, says Batty, makes it easy for agencies to access its database, and its tools can be constantly updated and tailored to agencies’ needs.
Batty and Davis are at pains to distance themselves from surveillance programs such as the National Security Agency’s PRISM program. Forensic Logic’s system collects information from existing law enforcement records and, when a client requests it, the company will gather, or “scrape,” data published on websites linked to criminal enterprises such as escort review sites known to facilitate sex trafficking. Security was one of the highest hurdles the company faced in its early days, says Batty, a computer industry veteran inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks to look for ways to network the nation’s crime fighters. “No one was going to let the data out of their agency’s firewall unless we showed we could protect it at a level much higher than they protect their own data,” he says. Now, Batty says, “we’ve got FBI certification for how we handle the data, how we select the data, how we disclose the data.” What was once an obstacle has become a competitive asset. A regional law enforcement agency in Texas owns the LEAP system but has entered into a long-term, exclusive agreement under which Forensic Logic will develop and run it. This is a distinction that attracts new users and data providers.
“It’s just shameful that this level of technology has not been able to be deployed to this point,” says Davis, who got his first exposure to inefficient communications as an intelligence officer in the Navy. “I was sent to Iraq in 2002 to fix a communication glitch between our aircraft and the ground force. It really consisted of me showing up to Camp Victory and walking up to a guy’s screen and moving his mouse,” he says. “The running joke was that, if we found Saddam, how could we tell anyone?”
Davis attended Tuck, then worked as a consultant until joining Forensic Logic last year. He met Batty through a mutual friend, and the mission of Batty’s company immediately spoke to him.
“Our challenge has been how to build a database that officers in the field can easily access on their smartphones,” says Batty.
“I call it Google for crime,” says Scot Thomasson, a retired federal agent and a member of Forensic Logic’s advisory board who was in charge of a 2012 operation in which the ATF used LEAP for the first time. For two months investigators targeting violent crime developed suspects and sent undercover agents after them. At the end of the sting they charged 60 people and seized 92 guns, a result so successful that the ATF has begun introducing LEAP into its offices in 125 cities.
That’s exactly how Batty and Davis hope their system will spread—by being so useful no one can ignore it. Judging from its field reviews, their strategy seems to be working. Just the link analysis, says Lt. Tribble in Vallejo, saves a huge amount of time by automatically mapping out and tying together all the elements of an investigation. “It’s an amazing thing to be able to look at something that links everything together,” he says, drawing a contrast to the commonly used white or corkboard postings so often seen on television crime shows. “It beats the heck out of different-colored shoestring.”
Eric Smillie is a freelance journalist and editor based in Oakland, California.