How to Buy...
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How to buy investigation software
By Tim Dees
Computer programs designed to assist investigators are diverse in both the way they work and the tasks they perform. What they do— or should —have in common is that they either perform tasks the investigator can't do himself, or perform that task much faster and more efficiently than a human could. Here's somethings to consider when purchasing investigation software:
Computer-based link charts
Intelligence management or link chart software is one category. Before computers were on every desktop, complex investigations used link charts to show relationships between suspects, victims, witnesses, places, etc. These would usually take the form of index cards tacked to a bulletin board, sometimes with pieces of string between related elements. It wasn't long before a chart like this took up far more room than any bulletin board could offer.
Shifting this task to a computer meant that the chart could be as large and complex as the task might require, and relationships were easier to see. The latest versions "mine" documents and records for you, identifying phone numbers, e-mail and postal addresses, names, dates, license plate numbers and VINs, as well as other details by scanning the files and pulling out the data. Clicking on a data point brings up a reference to where that information came from, and often a copy of the source itself.
Viewed as a whole, the resulting link chart looks like an amorphous blob of tiny lines, but the software can zoom in on any area and reveal the detail. Data points with the most links to them are revealed as the major components of the investigation. When the crimes are ongoing, the software can monitor news sources, incoming reports, call-for-service records and other data sources for more points and more links. When multiple agencies are involved in a case, the data can be drawn from all agency sources and made available to all the investigators.
As you might guess, this type of software is fairly complex. Most vendors offer training to their customers and frequently support regional user groups that meet several times a year. To get the most of the software, you need to commit to keeping your investigators current on the technology.
Supervisors can do a better job when they have ready access to a database of all ongoing investigations. It's not uncommon for a detective to have a caseload of 50 or more cases at any one time, and the detective's supervisor has that times however many detectives are in his unit.
Report screens showing the progress and aging of cases provide a snapshot of both the unit's progress and how individual detectives are handling their work.
Investigators have considerable latitude in the way they manage their time, and some will use that freedom to "coast" and do as little as possible to avoid attracting attention. Your records management system may have a module like this built in. If not, a flat-file database on an Excel spreadsheet is better than nothing.
Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.