As Arizona prison escapee John McCluskey and his accomplice, Casslyn Welch, remain on the loose, law enforcement agencies throughout the nation are delving into dozens of databases in search of clues that can lead to their capture.
Arizona has several such databases in place to investigate crimes and link trends to suspects. But high-ranking law enforcement officials throughout the state stress that a single database would work much better on a Valleywide, state and even national level if a uniform system were in place that would allow police officers to conduct searches at the stroke of a keyboard to investigate crimes more efficiently and solve crimes faster.
Last week, Maricopa County Interim Prosecutor Rick Romley organized a meeting attended by about 75 law enforcement officials covering 45 federal, state and local agencies throughout the Valley to discuss options and get agencies moving toward a five-year strategic plan for a uniformed criminal investigative database.
Afterward, Romley came under attack by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which contended that Romley’s meeting was for political gain and he was taking credit for launching a plan that is already in place. MCSO uses a database called COPLINK, which is part of the AZLink system that is regulated by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission. MCSO Cmdr. Bob Rampy said about 70 police agencies in the state use AZLink, although some of those such as the Mesa Police Department also rely on other databases like the Fusion Center — a common database for police agencies in the East Valley.
“The unfounded allegation by the Sheriff’s Office that Rick is trying to ‘take credit’ for the existing data sharing system is a prime example of the reason that the chiefs from all law enforcement agencies — federal, state, local and tribal — were invited to the summit,” said Leesa Berens Morrison, special assistant to Romley, who issued a statement on his behalf. “Information sharing is about communication and coordination, not about claiming credit for a specific database. Rick called the meeting to open the dialogue about the numerous systems available and how Maricopa County can benefit from enhanced information sharing.”
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was invited to last week’s meeting, but was out of town at the time giving a speech to a conservative group in San Diego. In his place, MCSO Lt. Irene Barron-Kirby was present. Rampy, who has led the AZLink effort, complained he was not invited to the meeting, although the invitation to MCSO was open to any representative from the Sheriff’s Office.
Barron-Kirby could not be reached for comment.
Romley said his motivation for the meeting was hardly political and that there has been a need for a one-stop database for “a long, long time.”
“I’m not going to discount the work the sheriff has done or any of the databases out there. They all have strengths and weaknesses. There are components of AZLink that are very, very good, but it only has a few of the agencies tied into it,” said Romley, noting that AZLink representatives gave a presentation during last week’s meeting. “The Fusion Center that all the chiefs in the East Valley are using is also a good one, and they all tout it as a good way to go. For what their needs are, it’s wonderful
“We need to come to an agreement and determine what is the right database to use. ... Everybody wants this. There just hasn’t been any coordination”
David Gonzales, U.S. Marshal for Arizona, said that — despite advances in policework — there are still deficiencies in information sharing. But getting a large number of police chiefs in the same room at one time was an accomplishment in itself.
“The goal is to coordinate. When a lot of people think of intelligence sharing, they think of terrorism or terrorist-related activity,” Gonzales said. “It’s also just as important for law enforcement agencies to share information about crimes committed in your community such as robberies, burglaries, rapes and other crimes. COPLINK is a very integral database, but there are also other intelligence databases out there.
“COPLINK would be an ideal system to use if everyone could be on board with it,” Gonzales added. “It’s user friendly, but only a handful of agencies use it throughout the state. If you’re doing a major investigation such as trying to catch a John McCluskey running around, getting information and leads can be cumbersome.”
Among the databases available to law enforcement are HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas) that contain photographs and information from drug dealers; RMIN (Rocky Mountain Information Network) containing information about criminals in Colorado, Utah, Montana and Idaho; and AZTIC (Arizona Crime and Terrorism Information Center).
Capt. Tom Kelly of the Apache Junction Police Department, who was present at the meeting, said his department is a partner with the East Valley Criminal Fusion Center on a part-time basis, is working to get linked into COPLINK, and also uses E-Trace when it confiscates firearms.
“It would be nice to have once place for all your shopping and make things easier for the police on the street,” Kelly said. “There’s a large variety of databases out there, but because of connectivity obstacles, it slows down how we share information. At least everyone is sitting down at the table and I hope it evolves into something better.”
Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead, who attended the meeting, said what sets the proposed database apart is that it’s more of an intelligence sharing network as opposed to reports and records sharing in existing databases.
“It’s something we need to do,” Milstead said of organizing such a network. “It’s a way to give officers real-time tactical information. Its purpose is well founded. A street officer out in the field would have a way to pull up a ‘dashboard’ or face sheets to help with their investigation.”
Milstead estimated that such a program could take two years before it’s in place.
Gilbert Police Chief Tim Dorn, who serves as chairman of the East Valley Chiefs of Police Association, said there have been several meetings with counterparts in the West Valley to expand information sharing capabilities.
“AZLINK, COPLINK and the fusion center have been instrumental in solving numerous complex, multi-jurisdictional felony investigations,” Dorn said. “We believe that information and resource sharing, with a focus on career criminals and gangs, is critical to reducing crime in our communities.”
The focus at future meetings is to identify cost-effective strategies to expand on and coordinate existing information-sharing initiatives, Dorn said.