TORONTO – An Ontario government mandate requiring its police forces to use a software system that collects and analyzes data about serial predators could be the first in a chain of similar systems for other provincial law enforcement organizations.
Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Monte Kwinter on Tuesday committed about $5 million a year to cover the software, hardware and training costs of the Major Case Management (MCM) system at a local news conference. Local police forces will cover their own internal costs, including the salaries of officers needed to enter data into the system. MCM has been available for about two years to Ontario police forces who wished to try it, but the government has also made an amendment to the Police Services Act that will regulate its use across the province.
MCM is based on PowerCase software from Waltham, Mass.-based Xanalys, which is designed to collect, store and correlate data related to ongoing police investigations, which can then be shared more easily among various police forces. The software includes an e-mail alert service that sends an automatic alert to officers when new information is entered into the system — an interview with a suspect in another case, for example, or a witness – might relate to their own investigations.
Mike Coughlan, director of MCM, said Ontario police forces have already been in discussions with their counterparts in Quebec to implement a similar system. “I don’t see any reason why this couldn’t be extended to become a national standard,” he said.
Ontario police began developing the MCM plan several years ago, when a report on the case involving serial killer Paul Bernardo concluded the investigation was hampered by a lack of information-sharing. PowerCase was seen as a knowledge management tool that could ease the burden of sifting through case-related data, Coughlan said. The problem, according to Kwinter, was that only about 42 per cent of all police forces were entering data into MCM.
“When you have a system that isn’t 100 per cent utilized, you have a problem,” he said, adding that some police forces felt they were too small or remote to get involved. “You have to get with the program. The people who are at risk and the people who are breaking the law are using this (kind of) equipment.”
Debbie Mahaffy, whose daughter Leslie was murdered by Bernardo, said it would be difficult for families who haven’t been touched by serial crimes to understand what it means to be able to share investigative data more effectively.
“If we as a society are creating bigger rats, we will need a better rat trap,” she said. “This is it.”
Canadian police have an uneven track record with case management. Although the federal government is approaching a deadline this year to unveil a national system for sharing criminal justice data, local efforts such as Toronto’s Enterprise Case Occurance Processing System (eCOPS) have been dogged by scope creep and cost overruns. Coughlan, however, said Ontario police would be making efforts to better integrate MCM with other systems as they evolve. “Those linkages are happening right now,” he said.
Ontario has already used MCM, which was first rolled out in 2001, to share information on a number of other cases, including the investigation into the murders of Cecilia Zhang and Holly Jones. It was also used to investigate the E-coli breakout in Walkerton, Ont., and for sharing information during the two SARS outbreaks.
Xanalys, which has used Ontario’s implementation as a key case study for its product, offers a module called Watson which brings analytics to the software’s collection and retrieval capabilities. In a demonstration, police officials showed how the PowerCase software takes information such as a witness statement and performs a “power index” that correlates data in the document to other items in the system. Potentially relevant data is hyperlinked and given a number, somewhat like a footnote, which can be explored through a series of icons. Police showed a training module that would allow officers to track phone numbers of one witness and match them with suspects involved in other cases. The database contains more than 16,000 cases and more than 200,000 names of “persons of interest” to police. These aren’t necessarily those with a criminal record, Coughlan said.
“It could be a first offence, it could be someone an officer has canvassed in the neighbourhood, someone you’ve interviewed at the time of an occurance,” he said.
Coughlan said he wasn’t sure to what extent Ontario police could reduce the total cost of ownership for something like the MCM system. Some of initial resistance to using it, he added, came from the challenge of keeping up with technology. “Who knows what the world of wireless will bring us?” he said.
PowerCase is also being used by 30 per cent of police forces in the U.K.