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Predator tracking computer gets a push
Province to unveil mandatory system
Creation of $32M PowerCase was rocky
Feb. 15, 2005
by Nick Pron and Richard Brennan, staff reporters
Article appears courtesy of the Toronto Star
It took eight years and $32 million to build, but in the end police forces in Ontario needed a push from the province to join with a sophisticated computer in the hunt for serial predators.
Years of bickering over whether PowerCase would be a help or a hindrance in tracking down serial offenders like Paul Bernardo officially ends today with an expected announcement from Community Safety Minister Monte Kwinter.
An amendment to the Police Services Act means the system — which automatically scans crime reports for similarities that may point to a single perpetrator — is now mandatory for the province’s 60 police forces.
Debbie Mahaffy, whose daughter Leslie was murdered by Bernardo, is expected to join Kwinter at a news conference in the Downsview office where the system was developed over several sometimes stormy years.
The news was greeted with a sense of relief by Gary Parmenter, recently retired as a detective-inspector from the Ontario Provincial Police, who described his seven years on the project as “one giant roller-coaster ride.”
Several times the project — originally developed in a cramped government office but now housed in a larger suite of rooms — seemed on its death bed, with critics lambasting it as too expensive, too cumbersome, too time-consuming and a waste of valuable police resources.
Said one veteran homicide detective: “You catch killers by good old-fashioned gumshoeing, knocking on doors, checking on leads — and not by poking around on a keyboard.”
But over the years, the group of about a dozen police officers from several forces, aided by computer experts, plodded on. They developed, as one said, a thick skin under the never-ending criticism, all the while maintaining that their system was a valuable aid to investigations.
“This is a great day for the citizens of Ontario,” Parmenter said about the central computer that currently contains more than 16,000 cases and more than 200,000 names of “persons of interest” to police. Its exact location has never been disclosed.
What is unique about PowerCase, setting it apart from similar systems like the one used in London, England, is that it sends out automatic alerts. Every night at about 11 p.m., it advises various forces of possible links in everything from homicides, sexual assaults and missing-persons occurrences, to non-familial abductions and criminal harassment cases, where the harasser is not known to the victim.
To date, more than 164,000 alerts have been sent out.
The alert is later followed by two emails and then finally a visit from one of the officers attached to the project if the force still hasn’t acknowledged what could be a possible lead in a case.
What the system is trying to do, Staff Insp. John van der Lelie of Halton Region police said in an earlier interview, is help the various forces in the “early identification of serial predator behaviour,” enabling them to share information about cases.
Work on PowerCase began in June 1997, when the Conservative provincial government announced it was acting on the recommendations of Justice Archie Campbell, who looked into what went wrong in the hunt for the killers of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy.
Campbell said the police forces who made up the Green Ribbon task force acted like they “were in different countries” in their investigation, which eventually led to the arrest of Bernardo and his then-wife Karla Homolka.
Several times Bernardo slipped through the fingers of the police because they weren’t sharing information, Campbell said in his report.
What was needed, he said, was a new computer system that would help police forces across the province find the links in crimes committed in different communities, and then work together from those leads.
While the previous Tory government announced it was setting up the task force, government officials later appeared to grow weary of the length of time it took to develop the system, the amount of criticism it was getting and the escalating costs. It costs about $6 million a year to run. Repeated efforts to make its use mandatory were always put on the back burner.
The program, officially called Major Case Management, was actually up and running over two years ago, but since its use wasn’t mandated by law, its proponents could only “recommend” that forces across Ontario give it a try.
Some did. For instance, PowerCase was credited with helping Toronto police in the hunt for the so-called Bedroom Rapist in Scarborough.
But many balked. And unless every force in the province investigated certain crimes in “a similar fashion,” the program wouldn’t work, Parmenter said.
When the Liberals were elected in the fall of 2003, there was a renewed enthusiasm for the scheme, said one government source. And it was quickly realized that the only way to overcome the “resistance to change” among the many critics in police circles was to make its use law, the source said.
The amendment to the Police Services Act, Ontario Regulation No. 354, actually came into force at the start of the year, and was announced with little or no fanfare in the Ontario Gazette. That was in sharp contrast to the headlines when the Campbell report was released.
A government spokesperson said yesterday that for a “variety of internal bureaucratic reasons,” the official announcement wasn’t ready to be made until today.
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