Warning crooks: Bucks County, Pa., has your number

System shares data across department lines

Seven police departments within Bucks County, Pa. are using software that allow their police officers to share basic criminal information while on their beats. Cody Systems has provided the software, called the Collaborative Object-Based Regional Access (COBRA) system, to the departments within the county free of charge, in honor of a police officer who was killed in action.

Although the state of Pennsylvania collects and disseminates some law enforcement data, getting information about nearby incidents to officers on the street remains a challenge, a problem which COBRA was designed to solve.

Police officers on patrol can use the software through their laptop computers. They can search on persons, incidents and vehicles that have come under suspicion in any of the districts within Bucks County, said Bristol Pa. township detective Robert Lebo, who uses the software. Behind the scenes, COBRA acts as a bridge to multiple police database systems within the county. Once an update is entered into one system, it can be accessed by an office from any of the participating forces within a few moments.

The county police departments had been looking for an information sharing system for some time, Lebo said, but the search took a greater priority in 2005 with the death of Newtown Borough police officer Brian Gregg. A suspect with a record of violent behavior killed Gregg while Gregg was trying to arrest him. Gregg was unaware of the man's history of violence.

An information-sharing system might have helped Gregg, Lebo said. "I'm not saying that it would have changed the way things happened, but it may have put the officer on guard a little more," he said.

Bristol set up a pilot program to try the Cody software in 2008, and has been using it since. Earlier this month the company donated the software in honor of Gregg. The software costs about $500,000, and the company pledged to provide support services as well, which could run about $50,000 per year.

The seven departments include the districts of Bristol Township, Bensalem, Doylestown Township, Falls Township, Newtown, Northampton and Warminster. Another 75 licenses were donated to nearby police departments that will allow them to contribute data to the system.

Bristol Township maintains the COBRA broker, called the Center-Point Server. The server keeps copies of all the records entered into each department's own records management system. No additional work on the part of the officers is needed to re-enter the data into COBRA, since the copying process is automated. The querying officer does not get the full record of the individual, due to privacy laws within the state. But the system ranks each person entered into it, based on the severity and frequency of previous infractions with the law. The records also show querying officers which other departments they can call for more information about an individual.

Prior to using this system, officers frequently would have no idea of the history of someone they were interacting with, Lebo explained. In some cases, an officer might mention a suspect's name on the radio and another officer from a nearby county who happened to hear the transmission and know something about the person might respond with some additional information. There was nothing systematic or consistent about the process. Even investigating someone from a desk would involve the time-intensive process of cold-calling the surrounding counties to run a check against the name.

With COBRA, "We can look at names, vehicle and places that other departments have had contacts with, to give us a better understanding of what we're dealing with at that point in time," Lebo said.

Lebo said he most appreciated the near-real-time aspect of the system. Running a check on someone, Lebo can get any recent information entered into the system. "He might have been over [in the adjoining district] 10 minutes ago hovering around a business or a school, not unlike he is doing when I had stopped him," Lebo said. With that information in hand, "it makes me look a little bit harder at the person."

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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